Monday, June 09, 2008

Rare, Not So Well Done

“[T]hus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”

- Twelfth Night, V, 1

That bit of Shakespeare jumped unbidden into my mind as I contemplated Opera Theatre's Midwest premiere of Vincente Martin y Soler's bucolic comedy Una Cosa Rara. First performed in Vienna in November of 1786, just six months after Mozart's masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosa was, for many decades, the far more popular piece, both in the Austrian capitol and the rest of Europe. It wasn't until the early 19th century that “the whirligig of time” gave Mozart his revenge over Martin. By then, of course, both composers had shuffled off this mortal coil.

It's not hard to understand why Cosa was more popular. It's mostly charming numbers are musically simpler than Mozart's and were probably easier on the late 18th-century ear. Like Figaro, Cosa boasted a libretto by the celebrated Lorenzo Da Ponte. Unlike Figaro, however, the story is pure meringue. What plot there is revolves around the unsuccessful attempts of Prince Giovanni to woo the shepherdess Lila away from her swain Lubino. Lila's fidelity is the “rare treasure” of the title.

In Figaro the aristocrats are a rather unpleasant bunch. In Cosa, they're just silly. Vienna's upper crust probably found that more politically acceptable.

Silly and funny aren't necessarily the same thing, however, and while Washington University musicologist Hugh Macdonald's English adaptation of the Da Ponte's original inserts lots of contemporary language and ideas along with some inside jokes about the opera itself, the result still struck me as somewhat incoherent and, ultimately, a bit dull.

Even in a sitcom - the low end of the farce spectrum - there has to be a sense that something is at risk somewhere in order to provide a little dramatic tension. There's none of that here. How much of that is Da Ponte's fault I really can't say; the only copy of the libretto I could find was in the original Italian and my rudimentary grasp of the language of my ancestors isn't up to the task of reading it. The bottom line is that, despite some impressive coloratura arias, the second act made me want to check my watch more than once.

Director Chas Rader-Schieber and set designer David Zinn seem to lack confidence in the material as well. The former fills every spare moment with movement and physical comedy while the latter has set the entire show inside a sort of cartoon version of an 18th-century drawing room filled with silly props including plastic pink Flamingos, plush animals, and sheep on roller skates. Although the resulting barrage of sight gags struck a good portion of the opening night audience as funny, I found much of it annoying, especially when - as was often the case - it drew focus from some truly wonderful singing and acting. That's just plain discourteous.

I really can't say enough about this terrific cast. Sopranos Maureen McKay and Kiera Duffy are wonderfully engaging as Lila and her somewhat more ethically flexible friend Ghita. Their beautiful voices negotiate Martin's more florid passages and rapid patter songs with ease.

Baritone Keith Phares, whose fine dramatic work graced earlier OTSL productions of Miss Havisham's Fire and Loss of Eden, demonstrates that he's a dab hand at comedy as well in the role of Lubino. Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, of course, showed his comic skills last season as the roller-blading Pish-Tush in OTSL's Mikado, so it 's not surprising to discover that he's equally funny as Ghita's quarrelsome fiancée Tita. Their singing is first-rate.

Tenor Alek Shrader, who was such an impressive Almaviva in The Barber of Seville back in '06, gets to shine once again as a feckless aristocrat in the role of Prince Giovanni. His dramatic aria about the pains of love was a highlight of the second act. Tenor Paul Appleby, a Gerdine Young Artist cast somewhat ironically in the comic geezer role of the scheming Corrado, is also in fine form.

Soprano Mary Wilson, whose supple voice has graced both the Opera Theatre and St. Louis Symphony stages in the past, is a comic delight as the somewhat befuddled Queen Isabella. She, too, is more than a match for some of the elaborate vocal ornaments Martin tosses her way. David Kravitz, another Mikado alumnus, makes the most of the relatively small role of the unscrupulous Mayor Lisargo.

Corrado Rovaris conducts the orchestra with great skill and precision. Maybe it's just the benefit of hindsight, but even in the sprightly sinfonia, I thought I heard echoes of the rapid opening passages of Figaro's overture. The orchestra certainly handles the music with Mozartian grace in any event.

We owe Opera Theatre a debt of gratitude for giving us a chance to hear the kind of music the Viennese thought superior to that of Mozart, but the entire project would have benefited, in my view, from fewer attempts at slapstick and some judicious edits of the score. It's easy on the ear, but I didn't find musically interesting enough to sustain my interest for nearly three hours, including intermission. Cutting around fifteen minutes from second act, for example, would tighten the dramatic structure, such as it is, without sacrificing any valuable musical content.

Opera Theatre's amusing production of Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara runs in rotating repertory with the season's other three operas through June 20th at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information call 314-961-0644.

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