Violetta, Manon Lescaut, Carmen…Mata Hari? Opera has always been attracted to alluring and dangerous women. Composer Matt Marks and librettist Paul Peers join a time-honored tradition with their new opera, Mata Hari, which is making its world premiere at HERE as part of Prototype, the festival of innovative opera now in its fifth year. It follows the real story of the famous Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan who was executed for spying for the Germans during World War I. While Mata Hari's story and Marks' music are individually thrilling, their merger onstage often comes across as a confusing jumble of facts and notes.
The show begins with Mata Hari (Tina Mitchell) awaiting her imminent execution. Her only companion is Sister Léonide (Mary Mackenzie), a chain-smoking nun with a bad attitude. Mata Hari reveals the series of events that brought her to this situation, starting with an unhappy marriage to Rudolf MacLeod (Steve Hrycelakas). Devotion to her unwell lover, a Russian soldier named Vadime (Tomás Cruz), leads her to seek out money for his treatment. The German Colonel Von Kalle (Joshua Jeremiah) just happens to have it.
Unfortunately, Peers drowns the emotional high points of this intriguing story in a deluge of dates, names, and locations. This is to be expected in a spy thriller, but it all becomes a bit muddled when sung in legit voice. A woman as complex and multifaceted as Mata Hari (real name: Margaretha Zelle) certainly deserves a comprehensive examination of her many identities, but in a written biography. In an opera, such an unedited approach tends to shortchange both the story and the music.
Peers (who also directs) and Marks seem to recognize this problem and attempt to rectify it by having our protagonist speak all of her lines, even as the whole word sings around her. It's a bold choice that serves to further alienate Mata Hari from her environment, but it still doesn't quite clear up some of the storytelling problems inherent in an opera this chock-full of information.
This is an especially vexing issue considering how exciting Marks' music is: His well-placed electric guitar riffs give this dynamic score a bite just when it needs it. As the French military prosecutor, Captain Bouchardon (a severe Jeffrey Gavett), interrogates Mata Hari, a sinister ragtime melody builds in intensity until it sounds as if it is melting into itself as the violin part slides into the abyss. Choreographer Anabella Lenzu stages a sadomasochistic foxtrot for this passage that makes it the most memorable part of the show.
Mitchell plays this scene with genuine vulnerability as we watch Bouchardon destroy her femme fatale routine with brute force. Her line delivery throughout the show is a bit one-note, but we begin to suspect that Mitchell is acting the part of a woman who is herself acting a part.
As Vadime, Cruz has the most vocally challenging material, and he delivers it superbly with his soaring countertenor. Sound engineer Isaac Jones gives his voice the slightest echo, making Vadime sound like a ghostly boy-band heartthrob.
Mackenzie gives the other standout performance of the show: Her Sister Léonide is all hardness that cracks open through the power of Mata Hari's charm. Also, the sight of a cornette-wearing nun slapping our protagonist while singing, "Shut up you whooooooore," is enough to make any opera fan smile.
Peers stages the show with great efficiency and thrift: Scenic designer Neal Wilkinson employs an intricate series of sheer curtains to create new playing spaces for this story that leaps across time and space. Video designer David Jonathan Palmer fills in the gaps with his gorgeous and flawlessly executed projections.
Despite all this technical wizardry, we still walk away feeling a bit bored. We're confused by the story, but not in a way that makes us want to solve the mystery behind it — and unfortunately, the thrust of that mystery keeps changing direction as the creators attempt to unpack yet another of Mata Hari's many identities. Mata Hari has a lot of individually great aspects, but it is undermined by its giant ambition to be all things in less than 90 minutes.