We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, August 23, 2018


The sterling cast of Salieri's La Cifra, presented by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
(photo by Brian E. Long)
Leave it to Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble to uncover an opera heretofore unknown and to give it a sparkling and delightful American premiere performance. Its success rests upon many shoulders. Rising star director Brittany Goodwin has put a commedia dell'arte spin on Salieri's La Cifra which might have otherwise flopped. Actually, we can't imagine it presented in any other way, having enjoyed this zaniness so thoroughly. Ms. Goodwin is relentlessly clever.

And there are many other shoulders to credit. The Dell'Arte Festival Orchestra, led by Maestro Catherine O'Shaughnessy (and isn't it great to see a woman conducting!) played Salieri's tuneful music in a manner that led to total appreciation of this underrated composer.  As a matter of fact, having heard his Falstaff and this opera, we are sure that he would have been far more popular today had he not been eclipsed by the young Mozart. 

The fine cast of young artists appear to have profited handsomely from their summer session and avidly picked up Ms. Goodwin's direction, capturing the ancient commedia dell'arte style. Gestures and facial expressions were super-sized and outlandish. Yes, these are stock characters but they also managed to have individual personalities that went beyond what was expected.

In the starring role of Rusticone (rustic, get it?) bass-baritone (we think) Angky Budiardjono handled the vocal demands and the comedy equally well. His character, based on Pantalone, is a conniving old goat who has hidden the aristocratic identity of his foster daughter Eurilla, along with her inheritance, in the hopes of marrying her. In this role, soprano Rachel Barker-Asto revealed her bel canto chops and created a sympathetic portrait of a modest and good-hearted young woman. We loved the way her killing of a dangerous wild boar (with a paper rifle!) changed her personality to one of swaggering confidence.

She has grown up as Rusticone's daughter, unaware of her aristocratic birth. Her step-sister Lisotta, given an outsized portrayal by the excellent mezzo-soprano Allison Gish, is out to snag Milord (the aristocratic tenor Timothy Stoddard) who rode into town on a hobby-horse and promptly fell for Eurilla. Lisotta's character is vain, insolent, and self-important with aristocratic pretensions. There are funny scenes of the sisters fighting and reconciling.  Of course, Eurilla, with Cinderella-like magnanimity, forgives everyone in the end.

Sandrino is the Pierrot-like character, in love with Lisotta. The role was beautifully rendered by baritone Jay Chacon. This was a very anxious suitor, breathing from a paper bag, ostensibly to deal with panic attacks. We wondered whether 18th c. folk were aware of that remedy!

Milord's side-kick Leandro was performed by tenor Stephen Steffens; the excellent chorus comprised Makayla McDonald, Andrea Howland, Sam Strickland, Nicholle Bittlingmeyer, Ian Joyal, Charles Calotta and James Healy .

The inventive staging was as impressive as the singing. During the overture, members of the ensemble ran around setting up the stage with curious props. Sheets were suspended between ladders and later the ladders held a suspended clothesline. A head of cabbage made several appearances for characters to swear upon. Little light bulbs ran across the front of the playing area. Trunks were brought in and some basic furniture. Rain was created by tossing handfuls of packing popcorn. At one point, Milord wore glasses with bulging eyes popping out on springs. Every item added to the fun. Matthew Iacozza is credited with Scenic Design.

As far as Claire Townsend's zany costumes, they fulfilled Ms. Goodwin's concept to a "T", as one can see from the above photo.

Ms. Barker-Asto had her chance to shine in several arias; in her second act lament, a two-part aria seemed a preface to the bel canto aria with its lively "cabaletta". As a matter of fact, a number of features presaged the bel canto period, especially the wild and crazy sextet which ends Act I.

We enjoyed her love duet with Mr. Stoddard, replete with tenderness and exquisite 18th c. harmonies.  If serious drama requires comic relief, can we say that comedy requires some romantic relief?

Mr. Stoddard also did some fine work in his arias and in the male trio in Act I.  Mr. Chacon got his big aria in Act II but also had a fine duet with Ms. Gish.

There was a charming group dance when the townsfolk gathered, which reminded us of English country dancing. We understand that Owen Horsley, himself an award-winning Scottish dancer, is responsible for the choreography.

And once more we enjoyed Artistic Director Chris Fecteau playing the hell out of the harpsichord for the recitativi.

The ins and outs of this topsy turvy plot were created with panache by Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose libretti served Mozart so well. We recommend that you grab a chance to see this work. Who knows when you will get another chance. Try to get tickets for Friday night or Sunday matinée. You might get lucky!

(c) meche kroop

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