The ultimate challenge for an opera composer? Comedy, of course. Tragedy allows you to pause the action here and there for an emotional wallow, but comedy is all about pacing. That's why there are so few really funny operas. Which makes Kirke Mechem's 1980 score for the UW Music Department's Tartuffe (Meany Studio Theater, UW campus, 206-543-4880, www.music.washington.edu; through Nov. 13), so light on its feet, so sure and astute in its sense of comic timing, a small miracle.
Under Claudia Zahn's direction, Molière's story of a pious fraud and hanger-on of the nouveau riche bounces along. A rambunctious cast boasts respectably good diction and displays an impressive mastery, vocal and physical, in the many intricate ensembles. Andrea Bush's Mondrian-goes-art-deco set and Mairi Chisholm's slightly twisted thrift-store takeoffs on 18th-century garb add visual humor.
Mechem's bubbling, endlessly colorful music (for a 14-piece orchestra, here led by David McDade) nimbly encompasses deadpan modal-ecclesiastical strains for Tartuffe, Copland-esque lyricism, sharply tangy dissonances at the chaotic climaxes, and the tiniest dash, in the waltz passages, of Richard Rodgers—not to mention sly nods to comic-opera forebears from Mozart to Stravinsky.
The saucy, pragmatic maid Dorine sings a "love the one you're with" aria to her young mistress just as her counterpart Despina in Così fan tutte (though Mechem's tune recalls the seguidilla from Carmen more than Mozart). To no avail; the inconsolable Mariane, sure that her papa, Orgon, won't allow her to marry her fiancé Valere, plunges into a delicious send-up of a solemn baroque lament. A later scene echoes the tender daughter-father pleading scene in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi; Mariane's aria here is nearly as pretty as "O mio babbino caro" (and just as detachable, if any young soprano is looking for a little American something for her recital repertory).
All these reminiscences might suggest Mechem's score is compiled rather than composed. What you hear in Tartuffe, though, is more like a bracing lack of self-censorship—a joyous disregard for the modernist pieties the 80-year-old composer encountered earlier in his career, which preached that the supreme compositional sin was to take advantage of anyone else's good ideas (unless those ideas came from Arnold Schoenberg, in which case, unquestioning obedience was the rule). In the context of the 20th- century's tiresome style wars, Mechem's music itself exposes hypocrisy.