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.

Monday, April 16, 2012


When the curtain rises on Gotham Chamber Opera’s  Il Sogno di Scipione we see three bodies in bed together.  Since Mozart wrote this work (opera seria?  cantata?) as a probably randy adolescent, one could readily conclude that he would have loved it.  The libretto by Metastasio comprises an allegory in which two goddesses vie for the attentions of Scipione, a Roman general--dry stuff indeed for our epoch until brought to sexy life by director  Christopher Alden.  Fortuna (Susannah Biller) and Constanza (Marie-Eve Munger) are two very sexy ladies. The blond (natch) Fortuna is tempestuous and vain; we know this because she is obsessed with her hair, makeup and glamorous outfits, designed by Fabio Toblini.  Constanza, the brunette, is also beautiful but she is loyal and spiritual; we know this because she rises from bed and performs a succession of yoga poses.  We can guess who wins; it is the Enlightenment after all.

The two coloratura sopranos chosen for the roles are both goddesses of the dacapo aria, not only beautiful to look at but exciting to hear.  The fioritura was rendered perfectly; these ladies are fearless and tackled Mozart’s high-lying tessitura with open throats and brilliant sound.  Tenor Michele Angelini was also a knockout as the eponymous hero; he has a lovely sound and an effortless way with phrasing.  He “wakes up” in paradise and in bed with two goddesses, completely bewildered since he fell asleep alone in a palace in Africa.  He reacts like Everyman; he lights up a cigarette.  (The awkward moment of watching someone presumably a non-smoker try to smoke onstage was matched only by Fortuna trying to walk in stilettos!)

Scipione’s dream includes not just the two goddesses but also some meetings with his deceased forebears.  Publio was magnificently sung by tenor Arthur Espiritu hobbling around on one leg and two crutches, having been injured in a prior African campaign.  His diction was remarkable and not a word was slighted.  Scipione’s father, excellently sung by tenor Chad A. Johnson arrived via wheelchair pushed by a nurse, suffering from spasticity and seizures--neither of which impaired his lovely singing.  However, one wondered about these directorial decisions since physical impairments are supposed to be left behind when one enters paradise!

Leaving aside a few over-the-top choices, most of the direction leavened the material considerably and the stage business mostly suited the characters and the text.  I would have preferred to see Costanza less interested in the cosmetics that so occupied Fortune, the better to have limned her character.

The epilogue was finely sung by soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen.  It adds nothing to the tale but somehow the dog must be wagged.  In Mozart’s day it was written to flatter a patron and in our day was used to flatter the patrons of Gotham Chamber Opera.  On the plus side, it gave the audience an opportunity to hear more of Mozart’s glorious music and Ms. Willis-Sorensen’s superb singing.

The simple set by Andrew Cavanaugh Holland comprised a mattress on the floor, some tangled sheets, a lamp and a mysterious wardrobe from which Fortuna drew a plethora of far out costumes seemingly designed for some provocative role-playing.  Additionally, the two forebears made their entrances and exits in similar fashion.  The chorus entered through the windows.  Lighting by Allen Hahn added to the excellence but a chance was missed to reflect the dark storm with appropriate effects. Happily, Neil Goren, Artistic Director of Gotham Chamber Orchestra, conducted his fine orchestra; the harpsichord was played by Keun-A Lee and Sibylle Johner played the cello continuo.

Gotham Chamber Opera is filling an instrumental  place in the New York City musical scene and has a most excellent home at the John Jay College where the intimate size of the auditorium gets us as close to Mozart as we will ever be.  Congratulations all around!
© meche kroop

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