The libretto of this witty opera, written by Max Blonda, could easily be the script of a TV sit-com -- Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz from the 1950s or the husband and wife from the cartoon Family Guy in the current decade. A husband and wife come home from a party. The husband complains that married life lacks sparkle and that his wife's friend, whom he's just met, is more attractive. The wife takes revenge by dressing up in a glamorous gown -- actually not hers -- and proclaiming her right to conduct an "open marriage". [No this is NOT a satire of Newt Gingrich; the opera had its premiere in 1929.] The husband predictably becomes jealous and sloppily cajoling. But the a guest arrives, despite the hour, the "famous opera tenor" whom the wife had attracted at the party. the wife flirts with him while the husband grovels. Finally the Tenor is shooed away, the wife slips out of her gown and into her housewife dress and the couple proclaim their happiness together in their mundane routine marriage. But a last interruption, the return of the Tenor with the wife's 'fashionable' friend, allows for the sort of madcap mayhem of a Marx Brothers film sung in contrapuntal twelve-tone musical density.
It is only the music that distinguishes this theatrical event from a sit-com or at best a stage play by David Mamet. What was a biting satire of "modern manners" in 1929 Germany seems tame today, when even Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" is regarded as a "period piece". The music, by Arnold Schoenberg, is another matter altogether. It sounds as bold and original as it did at its premiere, the chief difference probably being that orchestra members and singers are less daunted by it and better trained to sing it as Schoenberg intended. Schoenberg had hoped it would be a bigger success than it was, that it would be produced often and everywhere, but that didn't happen. The vocal score was too challenging for singers and the orchestration too quirky for the orchestras of the era. The orchestra for this 2010 staging was that of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, with Eliahu Inbal conducting, and I can assure that they didn't muff a single note. The four characters -- husband Georg Nigl, wife Brigitte Geller, famous tenor Mathias Schulz, and friend Sonia Visentin -- sing their roles with complete musical authority. They also act their roles quite amusingly. It's a bit of good ol' cognitive dissonance to watch their corny antics and hear their ultra-intellectual tone rows.
The whole production is less that an hour in length, with a cast of just four singers plus a child who walks on to speak a few words; it's effectively a "chamber opera" in length but considerably larger in musical ambition, not a score you'll go home whistling, rather one that will absorb all the attention you can give it and then compel you to hear it again. For music of such complexity and intensity, the brevity of this opera is just right; you could take it as five hours of Verdi or Wagner concentrated and crystalized in one hour of Schoenberg.
Do I need to say something simpler? Okay. It's a delightful entertainment as well as a musical marvel.