The Gonzales Cantata (review)
David Patrick Stearns of The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 6, 2009
The Gonzales Cantata. The real-life defense of deposed U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales so ineptly attempted to manipulate reality that you wonder if there's any point to dramatizing it with the surreal dimension afforded by the 18th-century-style cantata. Composer Melissa Dunphy makes an emphatic case for doing so. Her Gonzales Cantata - more PDQ Bach than Nixon in China - uses Handel's formality and symmetry as a starting point, humorously colliding with Gonzales' anything-but-symmetrical train of thought, quoted from the 2007 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Just as Handel arias repeat text over and over, Dunphy hits a high comic pitch in the Gonzales aria "I Don't Recall" - uttered 72 times during the hearings and repeated in the aria just as often, alongside a countdown on the supertitle screen.
Dunphy refracts Gonzales even further by casting women in male roles, in keeping with Handel's practice of casting male characters with treble voices (castratos, etc.). How, then, could you tell who was singing the role of Arlen Specter? The capable 20-member cast, with the excellent Mary Thorne as Gonzales, wore pageant-ready evening gowns and tiaras, plus sashes bearing the names of their characters.
Dressing the music like Handel, however, sets up an expectation of depth. Though Dunphy's fluent, well-judged music had underlying dissonances in the nine-piece chamber orchestra she conducted (with Coplandesque harmonies when characters were being folksy), the satire was confined to the surface events with somewhat smug humor. That significantly limited the piece's scope in exposing this sorry, embarrassing chapter of American justice.