Critic’s Notebook: Two Operas With Nothing in Common, Except Exhausted Women

The goal so often is to run down, beat down and slow down powerful women — to an actual standstill. The pain of both operas was seeing that strategy in action, and seeing it work. Indeed, the exhaustion of merely being a woman in the world was the unavoidable, unbearable theme of these performances.

And there has rarely been a master of exhaustion like Michaela Martens, the mezzo-soprano whose Susan B. is simultaneously mythical and accessible. In a pinstriped suit jacket and dress pants, her hair fashionably yet sensibly blown out, her face open but her mouth a downward slash of worry, Ms. Martens could be the sort of working mom we all know.

A lawyer trying to avoid gropes as she tries to make partner, perhaps. Or a politician forced, time and time again, to argue — her tone measured and patient, but for the stridency that sometimes creeps in at the injustice of it all — with those unworthy to share a stage with her.

Her story is told, in Stein’s inimitably gnomic text, as a series of quasi-perplexing episodes mashing made-up characters with fanciful versions of historical figures. John Adams pines for Constance Fletcher; Jo the Loiterer marries Indiana Elliot and they bicker about changing her name; in the work’s heart-rending climax — laughably anticlimactic to describe — her allies try to get Susan B., wearied to her core, to leave her house and speak at one more meeting.

Thomson’s score is a mélange of town-square brassiness and Stephen Foster-esque parlor hymns, a panoply that seems to pierce to the very heart of our country’s past and spirit. In R.B. Schlather’s quietly poignant production, performers walk, sit and stand among the audience, which sits around the perimeter and on the carpeted floor of Hudson Hall, an old gathering space where the real Anthony lectured.


Ella Loudon as Indiana Elliot in “The Mother of Us All.” Credit Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Not all those wonderfully vivid performers are professionals; some untrained voices and unpracticed bodies add to the sense that “The Mother of Us All,” for all its sophisticated stylization, is the story of all of us, today as before. The costumes are an explosion of cross-chronological thrift-store kitsch, faded Disney T-shirts meeting tight Victorian coifs, on endless procession around this Anyhall, U.S.A., the crisp late-afternoon autumn light filling it, then gradually dimming.

Light and dusk coexisted, too, in Ms. Martens’s voice, radiant cries down to beleaguered sighs. She stood very still, indeed, for her final aria, a shining, stirring paean, poised between hope and despair, to her “long life” and the endless frustration that is political action: “Going forward may be the same as going backward.”

That “Thaïs,” in Mr. Cox’s unabashedly campy production, resonated with this “Mother” is largely because of the restraint of its stars, Ailyn Pérez and Gerald Finley, and the sensitivity of its conductor, Emmanuel Villaume.

There was a certain meatiness missing in the voices of both Ms. Pérez and Mr. Finley, a certain sumptuousness, but they compensated with accuracy, intelligence, earnestness. They chose to play actual people rather than caricatures, a decision that made the charged interactions this agonized man and this misunderstood woman feel surprisingly — and, in today’s world, uncomfortably — real.

But not as real as Ms. Martens, watching the parade of history continue without her at the end of “The Mother of Us All.” Her stillness, her exhaustion, was both a kind of death and a kind of eternal patience. She was standing her ground.

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