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OPERA REVIEW : Mechem's Sparkling 'Tartuffe'

November 01, 1990|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Moliere's "Tartuffe, or The Imposter," a comedy about religious hypocrisy, has retained its currency since the dramatist introduced the work to the Court of Louis XIV in 1664.

Drawn by the comic achievement of the play, Wichita-born composer Kirke Mechem turned it into a three-act opera in 1980. In a production at the Little Theater at Cal State Northridge, the work runs through Saturday.

In the printed program, Mechem receives credit for the music and the libretto. No one is identified as the translator of the French. Unless memory serves ill, that honor ought to go, at least in part, to poet Richard Wilbur.

Mechem has exercised his prerogatives as librettist, eliminating one character, double-casting two others and rewriting the ending.

Nonetheless, the 65-year-old composer has created a sparkling, lapidary and accessible work.

Mechem establishes musical tags for his characters: spectral hymn harmonies for Tartuffe, an absurd flourish for the dupe Orgon. He unifies the work in other clear ways, as when the soubrette maid Dorine sings a mocking folk ballad in the first act and the principals reprise it in the third. He also finds opportunities for musical wit.

He can rise to lyric heights as the occasion demands, such as when Mariane begs her father not to make her marry Tartuffe. Not least, he can create catchy if not-too-complex ensembles.

Unfortunately, the student cast found most of his demands quite taxing and served the music less well than it did David W. Scott's fluid, high-spirited stage direction. Scott also conducted the small orchestra with vigor, style and frequent disregard for overwhelming his singers.

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