Thursday, September 3, 2015

Dell'Arte's Rosina Trilogy

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble
Summer 2015 Beaumarchais Trilogy
Baruch Performing Arts Center

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble presents the Rosina saga.
Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble is back and more ambitious than ever. Artistic director Christopher Fecteau and his team have grown the company and brought us the most extensive summer festival to date, featuring three fully staged productions, two of which are relative rarities, and a Beaumarchais-themed concert. This time around they tackled one of the trajectories of the Figaro trilogy, or, in this case, what they’re calling the Rosina trilogy.

Rosina and her count unite.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782)
Music by Giovanni Paisiello
Libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini
August 15, 2015

Rather than start with Rossini’s more canonically performed version of Il barbiere di Siviglia, the first installment of the trilogy, Dell’Arte opted for the lesser known but no less delightful version of the same story by Giovanni Paisiello. And thank goodness, because really Rossini’s take gets overplayed. 

Of the three shows in the run, this one, sadly, was the weakest link. The production was overwrought with crazy costuming and elaborate makeup decisions that distracted from both the music and the story. Several of the singers seemed to have more of a background in musical theater than extensive exposure to operatic singing, and this showed. 

What Dell'Arte has always done well is keep to the basics and build from their strengths (musical excellence and effective direction), which has always allowed them to cover up any hint of amateurishness. Unfortunately, this maiden voyage in the trilogy just wasn't entirely the case. 

The Count and his hoodwinking schemes.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
Rosina (1980)
Music by Hiram Titus
Libretto by Barbara Field
August 28, 2015

Hiram Titus’s Rosina, which we saw second though it technically comes third in the trilogy, was the most exciting discovery of the series, and it was thought-provoking as a foray into “modern” opera. It turns out that it is not inspired by Beaumarchais’ original third installment at all and instead is the brainchild of the composer and his librettist, the playwright Barbara Field. And it is in many ways a product of its time.

Cherubino sings of times gone by.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
The setting is Madrid just a few years after the conclusion of Le nozze di Figaro, though Figaro and Susanna are nowhere to be found. Cherubino is an artist now, trying to make ends meet, and the Countess, Rosina, has abandoned her husband and run off with Cherubino whose child she has recently born. The opera opens in their humble garret as Cherubino puts the finishing touches on his latest painting, a Madonna and child portrait of Rosina and their infant son. It is Beaumarchais meets Puccini’s La boheme, in all its effects.

The whole opening section is mostly sung through, a nod to verismo, and punctuated by an exposition-heavy aria, in which Cherubino recounts some of their well-known backstory, which then evolves into a love duet between the artist and his lover Rosina. But the composer gives us hints early on that something isn’t quite right. Their duet features a plaintive, slightly off kilter oboe accompaniment that clues the audience in to the fact that the Countess isn’t in the right place. This is not where she belongs. Which is in fact precisely where the opera will eventually end up at the end of Act II a couple of hours later.

The libretto often borrows from the tradition of musical theater, even though Titus’s score is largely classically inspired. The whole package was far less modern and dissonant than I would have expected from a piece composed in the late 1970s and had it’s debut in 1980. Musically many moments resonate with echoes of Rossini and Mozart, especially in terms of its basic compositional form, which covers all of the classic bases from arias and duets to quartets. The end of Act I even climaxed in a sextet finale. It doesn't get much more classic than that. 

Cherubino and Rosina in love.
Photo credit: Karen Rich
The story may not fit squarely into the original Beaumarchais trilogy, but the message is perhaps just as counterculture as its revolutionary source material. The bourgeois individualist spirit in Beaumarchais is countered with an anti-establishment, anti-patriarchal energy that is of the independent feminist ilk in Barbara Field’s libretto. “From now on choices shall be pragmatic,” Rosina sings in the final finale at the end of Act II. When she agrees to return to the fold with the Count, she does so on the condition that she remain free of useless vows and will be free to reconsider her commitment at anytime. Call it a post-nup, or a pre-re-nup. Excellent soprano Marie Masters played this modern lady and carried the show. We discovered this singer in Dell’Arte’s production of Salieri’s Falstaff last year where Ms. Masters was a feisty force of nature as Ms. Ford. It was impressive to see her acting range in such a different and more mature character as Titus’s Rosina, all while confirming her vocal talents as a very promising bright soprano.  

In short, the Countess is done slumming it with a starving young artist no matter how charming he is. It’s time for a return to pragmatism, which is strangely prescient of Regan-era bourgeois values coupled with a renewed sense of her worth as an independent woman that bespeaks the Equal Rights Amendment movement of the time too. She is ready to return to the comforts of her life with the Count. The vie bohemienne just wasn’t doing it for her: schlepping water up to the garret, living on next to nothing, never able to afford the rent, constantly bothered by an unkempt and mustachioed landlady requesting payment, and a million other minor torments. She opts for her old life back. Though, she insists, now a worldly wise and independent willed woman, that she will go back to the Count only if he agrees to take her back with her bastard child and without the false vows of matrimony, no claims of eternal love, no promises that nobody can keep. Theirs will be a relationship of convenience that they are equally and independently engaged in. She even goes so far as to pass off her ruby ring, a memento from her initial wedding day, to the count’s ex-courtesan lover who has fallen in love with Cherubino and who will stay on with him (a nod to the Mozartian/DaPontian trick of switching couples?).

Pilar, Mendoza, Amparo, Cherubino and Rosina weather the storm.
Photo credit: Karen Rich
Rosina may be stronger now, but what happened to the grudge between Cherubino and the Conte. It has vanished here. If this was conceived as a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, the second installment of the original trilogy, it blatantly disregards the premise of Beaumarchais’s third play (The Guilty Mother) that is supposed to take place about twenty years after The Marriage of Figaro and so about seventeen years after Titus and Field’s installment in the Figaro saga. One of the plot points that they do take up though is that Cherubino and the Countess end up having a love tryst, the result of which is in fact the love child at the center of The Guilty Mother. But, in the Beaumarchais, it was an affair that lasted only a night while the Count was away for business. They never ran away together and Cherubino never becomes a starving artist La Boheme-style. In fact, their son, Leon, is raised as the Count’s lawful progeny, even if the Count doubts his legitimacy. None of this would square up with the premise of this opera. The big reveal that Leon is in fact the love child of Cherubino and Rosina is at the center of the dramatic reconciliation of the Beaumarchais play, a twist that is rendered impossible by the fact that the Count is already accepting his wife and her bastard child back into his palace by the end of Field’s Rosina.

Elizabeth Bouk as Amparo.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
Barbara Field’s libretto demonstrates a solid grounding in classic drama conventions. Two of the main plot lines revolve around getting the girl back and getting the ring back. For Cherubino (here played with passion by tenor Christopher Lilley) the task at hand, the objective of his “master plan,” is to retrieve the ring he wasn’t supposed to pawn and return it to its rightful owner without her knowing that it’s gone. And, for the Count (Min Gu Yeo, a beautiful sounding baritone) the action revolves around getting his wife back.

Characters like Señor Mendoza (Korland Simmons) and the landlady Pilar (Kerry Gotschall) are walking archetypes to be employed to comic ends. The landlady’s susceptibility to flattery is one of the plot devices and the source of one of its funniest moments that was convincingly played. Simmons has a deft, happy-go-lucky sense of comic timing and an all around pleasing demeanor on stage that made him fun to watch. As he is prodded to lavish many ornate declarations of love on Gotschall’s mustachioed Pilar by being blindfolded, he gushes forth a profusion of flowery language thinking he was simply alone with his beloved Rosina. The blindfold only comes off once the set piece has gone too far. It is basic slapstick humor very gracefully executed.

Titus’s score is obviously in dialogue with his Mozartian and Rossinian forebears. His musical vocabulary rarely features the alienating dissonance of much modern music. Beautiful moments abound like the line in the contrabasso when Amparo the courtesan (Elizabeth Bouk) steps up to tell her life story in all frankness. But it kind of came out of nowhere, relying on an awkward transition to get there.

Amparo opens up about her sordid past.
Photo credit: Karen Rich
The narrative and dramatic vocabulary of the libretto, on the other hand, is less fluent and frequently lacks tact. Characters often state too much: the scourge of modern opera. Thinking of Mozart and the perfection of Da Ponte’s poetry makes much of the language here that the music is meant to serve seem baggy or trite. “The rent is spent,” was a particularly uninspired turn of phrase – one of the zingers of the evening. The count also has an aria where he repeats “hilarious” over and over and I kept wondering: What is so hilarious? Why was it hilarious? The hilarity of the finding your wife living with another younger man escaped me. It may have been many things, but hilarious doesn’t seem to me among them. Then there were all of these pithy exclamations that packed the message of a proverb but were too wordy to be considered folk wisdom let alone to be sung. At one point we hear: “Diplomacy is the art of making your enemies face off against each other so you don’t get injured” (or something to this effect). What a mouthful! It was awfully wordy! Proverbs and folk wisdom tend to pack a slightly more succinct punch.

Le nozze di Figaro (1786)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
August 29, 2015

Rosina croons Porgi amor.
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera
Le nozze di Figaro was definitely the highlight of the festival. While it’s true that it’s hard for other composers and librettists to live up to the genius of the Mozart/Da Ponte combo, Dell’Arte’s rendition of Nozze was fresh and delicious, thanks to a solid cast of singers and wise direction choices.

Soprano Jennifer Townshend was an extremely compelling Countess. From the first notes of her Act II opener, Porgi amor, she had me hooked, and her Dove sono i bei momenti, in Act III, was incredibly moving and had me shedding copious tears. Dell’Arte clearly saved their hottest talent for Mozart. Olivia Betzen was a perfectly fiery Susanna who definitely helped carry the ensembles with her soaring soprano. In her duets with Townshend’s Countess, she also held her own and really gave her something to sing off and sing into. They had good chemistry as the knowing women who are able to outsmart their men since this time Figaro is out of the loop and more powerless than he was in the prequel though he is no less cocky about his quick-wittedness. 

Susanna crossdresses poor Cherubino.
Photo credit: Brian Long 
Baritone Rodolfo Nieto in the role of Figaro had a captivating stage presence and, notwithstanding some pronunciation missteps from time to time, was vocally solid throughout, particularly impressive how he managed to wrap his mouth around Figaro’s most challenging rapid fire lines particularly in Aprite un po’ gli occhi. Mezzo Heather Jones as Cherubino had excellent Italian and great acting chops, delivering the paggio’s showstopping arias with a mischievous freshness and enthusiasm that are the essence of this character. Baritone John Callison successfully played the Count as entitled arrogant and lust. His rendition of Vedrò mentre io sospiro among the highlights of the evening. Bass-baritone Michael Spaziani as Don Bartolo delivered an excellent and thundering La vendetta. After thoroughly enjoying her in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea two years ago, mezzo Alison Cheeseman didn’t have as much to work with here as she did in the role of Nero back then but she was a terrific Marcellina, both vocally and acting-wise. It is truly exciting to watch talented singers like her grow. 

As to the production and direction, the sets were essential but functional and the blocking was pretty traditional for a Nozze, doing justice to the theatrical twists and turns of the plot. In the costume department, Figaro and Susanna make their entrance in ordinary contemporary street clothes suggesting a modern take. Still, there was not much class distinction made between the upper and lower crusts as all in all the cast seemed dressed more for a rehearsal than for closing day of the run. Only the countess seems to exude an elegance pertaining to her status and class. It was also a nice touch to have her most of the time pouring herself and downing full calices of wine, so as to drown her sorrows. The casual vibe of the costumes, however, did not distract from Wolfie’s brilliant music, which the cast and Metamorphosis Orchestra embodied at a very high level. 

Rosina reunites with a repentant husband.
Photo credit: Brian Long
The nine-year-old girl sitting behind us, who was dressed in her cutest going-out-on-the-town dress, was quite thoroughly entertained. At the end of the show we overheard her saying: “Best night ever!” Not once did her attention fade as she was glued to the action all night. And so were we. The cast brought life to this masterpiece of a score with great pacing and verve. 

– Lei & Lui

Happy endings for one and all.
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera

Dell'Arte Opera's Artistic Director, Christopher Fecteau

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