|ON SITE OPERA CURTAIN CALL
Sitting in the fragrant and manicured West Side Community Garden on W. 89th St. we couldn't help thinking of that classic rock tune by Crosby, Stills, and Nash with the lyrics "And we got to get ourselves back to the garden".
Had On Site Opera's production of Mozart's The Secret Garden not been so compelling the gorgeous colors of the Spring flowers might have upstaged it. Happily, nothing could have upstaged this production, one that left us with a big smile which should last us at least through the weekend. Looking at the faces of the audience members indicated that our joy was a shared experience
The wildly creative stage director Eric Einhorn has so many tricks up his sleeve that we never know what he will come up with next. Except we do know and we will tell you a bit at the end of this review. The entire premise of On Site Opera is to match the production to an appropriate setting. Regular readers will know exactly what we refer to but others can enter "On Site Opera" into the search bar to fill in their knowledge, lest we repeat ourselves.
Right now, it is the current production that commands our attention and mobilizes our face into a goofy grin. What an inspiration to present Mozart's La finta giardiniera in a garden! The site was perfect with the audience sitting around the perimeter of a large grassy circle with the action taking place both within the circle and in the aisles around and behind the audience. The cast of seven could remain interacting with each other whilst the principal participants in that scene were "center stage". Occasionally, cast members interacted with members of the audience.
It seemed so organic but probably an incredible amount of labor was necessary to produce that effect of spontaneity. To our surprise the acoustics were excellent. Calzabigi's libretto was translated and obviously adapted by Kelley Rourke, and a very fine translation it was. The scene in which Sandrina and Count Belfiore go insane was wisely cut and the 90 minute production moved along swiftly, relying on spoken dialogue in place of recitativi to move the action forward. Readers may be shocked to learn that we enjoyed the English but there was great skill involved in converting this silly and unwieldy story into an hour and a half of pure delight. Focus was placed squarely on the interactions of the lovers.
The story concerns seven would-be lovers all at odds with one another until they learn certain lessons. The three male suitors must learn how to court the women they desire. Count Belfiore (beautifully sung by tenor Spencer Viator) has anger management issues that drove away his beloved Lady Violet (the marvelous soprano Ashley Kerr) who is hiding out working for the Mayor (performed by terrific tenor Jonathan Blalock), as a gardener named Sandrina,
Superb baritone Jorell Williams (a product of Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance some years ago) portrayed Lady Violet's servant who has accompanied her, also disguised; he learns to court the Mayor's servant Serpetta (splendid soprano Alisa Jordheim) in a foreign language which she clearly finds far more romantic than English.
The modest Ramiro (portrayed by marvelous mezzo Kristin Gornstein, well known from Heartbeat Opera) must overcome his diffidence and pursue the Mayor's niece Arminda. Soprano Maeve Hoglund created quite a character--what the French would call exigent. She only accepts Ramiro when he gets forceful. Faint heart never won fair lady, as they say.
We find mating behavior fascinating--pursuit, rejection, betrayal, reconciliation--far more than stories about terrorism, politics, and inventions. We wish more contemporary composers would write about romance. Don't we all love to see our foibles onstage?
There were plenty of sight gags to add to the fun. Props like rakes, spades, and garden hoses were put to good use which you will want to see for yourself.
So the story was engaging, the singers splendiferous, the setting delightful, the English diction perfect. Even the lighting (designed by Shawn K. Kaufman) was inventive with strings of white lights encircling the garden, changing to blue when the Count was desperate and to red when things heated up. Costume design by Beth Goldenberg was right on point with Arminda appearing quite glamorous in her Schiaparelli pink costume and hat. Even the shoes were perfect with Sandrina (Lady Violet) wearing yellow Wellies and the Count wearing violet patent leather.
But this is opera and we have yet to say a word about Mozart's music. He was but 18 years old when he composed the work (and what's YOUR 18-year-old doing?). The melodies that tumbled out one after another from his teen-aged pen were brilliantly conducted by Maestro Geoffrey McDonald with his customary stylish verve. The reduced orchestration was accomplished by horn player Yoni Kahn and Thomas Carroll. Orchestration was effectively distributed among a pair of oboes, a pair of period clarinets, a pair of bassoons, a pair of horns, and a double bass. The group calls itself Grand Harmonie and lives up to its name. The vocal lines are all melodious and the ensembles filled with pleasing harmonies.
The fact that On Site Opera presented this gift to our community (a new initiative of theirs) is astonishing and surely merits one's consideration of a generous donation.
This is a co-production with The Atlanta Opera and will be presented at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens next weekend. So, unless you want to travel south, we strongly urge you to show up tonight and to show up early. The production begins at 7 so don't say we didn't warn you. Saturday night is the final performance. The address is 123 W. 89th St. in Manhattan.
W promised to tell you a bit about what On Site Opera has coming up. The United States premiere of Darius Milhaud's The Guilty Mother will be presented at The Garage, 611 W. 50th St. on June 20, 22, 23 and 24. If you've ever wondered what happened to the folks DaPonte wrote about, this will be your chance.
Finally, we would like to mention that we have a lot more to say about this opera which we reviewed two years ago at the Santa Fe Opera. If you enter "Crazy in Love" into the search bar above, you will be directed to a funny psychological analysis which we wrote about their very fine traditional production.
(c) meche kroop