There was a time when Moliere’s comic opera “Tartuffe” was banned from public performance due to its jabs at Christian morality.
That was in the 1660s. Nowadays the religious criticism seems tongue-in-cheek and fitting for production at the Christian-based Anderson University.
Over the years, “Tartuffe” has been performed as a regal 17th century parlor tale with characters in Louis XIV garb and as a 1950s morality play based at a Christian TV station. [Photo on left: Seth Rodden, as wealthy merchant Orgon Pernelle, talks to maid Dorine, played by Katherine Beach, in Anderson University's production of the comic opera "Tartuffe."]
At AU, director Laurel Goetzinger has chosen Kirke Mechem’s 1980 updated version for this weekend’s performances, placing the time period in the middle of those earlier productions — during the socially formal early 19th century with rich waistcoats and floor-length dresses (thanks to true-to-the-age costumer Karen Wittin).
Whatever the age, the message is still universal: trust not the hypocrite.
Tartuffe is the opera’s chief conniver who has taken in wealthy merchant Orgon Pernelle and his family. Before his ruse is uncovered, he receives the deed to the mansion and a blessing to marry Pernelle’s daughter Marianne.
Tartuffe is played formidably by the towering H. Frank Ebels, who believably works the angles as a cool charlatan and false confessor. Watch his roving eyes but don’t trust him. Tartuffe’s first appearance, which doesn’t come until the second act, humorously sets up the character’s contradictions as Ebels walks through a door wearing the holy red of a cardinal while carrying two crosses. Of course, he turns out to be the double-crossing conniver.
Top voices in the production include Seth Rodden, whose distinct pronunciation convincingly carries Orgon Pernelle’s naive commitment to Tartuffe, and Katherine Beach as the doubting maid Dorine. Also of note is Lauren Parish as Orgon’s wife, Elmire. The opening of Act 3 is built around her ability to exude female confidence. She bemoans the stubbornness of men (“marital bliss can never be found with a man”) with wit, keeps the audience following her every move in catching Tartuffe in his own lies and draws laughs with her operatic cough.
“Tartuffe” can often be too tough for Midwest audiences. Be advised to keep an eye out for the comic elements. Feel free to chuckle at most any point but make note of the orchestra led by Fritz Robertson; the music rolls from emotional involvement to sly parody, ranging from sauciness as characters joust over Tartuffe’s personality to the cartoonish revelation of Tartuffe’s hypocrisy.
Also of help, the opera is sung in English with English surtitles projected overhead.
If you go...
- What: “Tartuffe,” the comic opera by Moliere, updated in 1980 with music and lyrics by Kirke Mechem; sung in English with English surtitles projected above the stage.
- When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday
- Where: Boze Lyric Theatre, Byrum Hall, Anderson University
- Tickets: Buy them at the door or call (765) 641-4351. General admission is $12 and senior/military is $10; students’ cost is $5 or donation of a non-perishable food item.
- Information: The performance is recommended for those who are high school age and above.
—Scott L. Miley is a reporter for The Herald Bulletin. Photo credit: Don Knight. Story republished with permission.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2010, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the seventh consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.