A figure appears in the darkness. As the lights fade up, we can make out her nun’s habit, her wimple. Then, she lights a cigarette.
The bleakly comic, intriguing dissonance in the opening moments of Mata Hari, a new opera with music by Matt Marks and libretto by Paul Peers (who also directed) – the tension between Sister Léonide’s world-weary affect and her vows of insularity – is immediately, viscerally fascinating. Hauntingly sung by soprano Mary Mackenzie, Sister Léonide occupies a nebulous feminine space. She’s neither ingénue nor femme fatale, virgin nor whore.
Unfortunately, Mata Hari isn’t about Sister Léonide at all. A vaguely vignette-driven account of the infamous Dutch exotic dancer and possible spy executed by the French for being an ostensible double agent during World War I, Mata Hari’s approach to its protagonist’s life is far less story-driven – and engaging – than its take on the shadowy minor character who drives its framing device: Mata Hari, languishing in a French prison awaiting execution, unburdens herself to the nun grudgingly assigned to supervise her.
The problem isn’t just that Mata Hari (Tina Mitchell) is a far less vocally showy role than that of her co-star – most of the character is conveyed in speak-singing more reminiscent of cabaret than of opera. It’s that Mata Hari is never quite clear on what story, exactly, its protagonist is telling. We see her flirt with other men, cheat on her husband (Steve Hrycelakas) in a series of dances with other men, only to insist to the cynical Sister Léonide that she’s guilty at most of a furtive glance – at most – while her husband was the main adulterer. Yet it’s never clear from the staging or the music which account we’re supposed to believe. Is Mata Hari a German spy? A double agent? An innocent woman caught up in her love for the Russian officer Vadime (an unearthly, if perhaps excessively waifish, Tomás Cruz)?
The ambiguity in Mata Hari’s life has the potential to be fascinating – a story about a liar trying to leave the world with the best possible narrative about herself – but Mata Hari never seems to be quite about that, either.
Rather, we’re left with a series of powerful, visceral moments. The strongest of these is the opening, in which men venerate the heroine, dressed up like a Javanese goddess. But taken together, the sequences don’t altogether add up to a story.
This lack of focus is a shame, because so much about Mata Hari is so strong. Musically, the opera (with a four-person orchestra of electric guitar, piano, violin, and accordion) is ethereal and intoxicatingly discordant, with echoes of French chanson that do much to establish a sense of place. Several of the set-pieces – including a tango that hints at the power-struggles of international espionage – are haunting. By taking a physical rather than vocal approach, Mitchell’s performance is a strong one: nervous and taut, Mata Hari comes across like a caged animal, constantly in search of the moment she can bolt.
It is only in Sister Léonide – whose fear and contempt for Hari turn, over the course of the opera’s ninety minutes, to a kind of mother-love – that we see any real emotional change. So that, when she joins in to sing Mata Hari’s final pre-execution farewell, it isn’t the temptress that we’re listening to.
Mata Hari runs through January 12 as part of the Prototype Festival.