'Volpone': Putting On Heirs

Jeremy Little, left, as Mosca and Rodell Rosel as Cornaccio, in John Musto's adaptation of the Ben Jonson play.
Jeremy Little, left, as Mosca and Rodell Rosel as Cornaccio, in John Musto's adaptation of the Ben Jonson play. (By Carol Pratt)
By Tom Huizenga
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, June 25, 2007

Greed never goes out of style. Four hundred years ago, Ben Jonson built an entire play, "Volpone," from the insidious incarnations of greed and managed to create something both humorous and poignant. Composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell have done Jonson one better: They "unfaithfully" revamped his story, adding even more wit, a rhyming text and music that sparkles. Their chamber opera "Volpone" received its world premiere at the Barns of Wolf Trap in 2004, and it returned Friday evening in a new production.

The wealthy Venetian Volpone (Italian for "fox") pretends to be dying in order to swindle his upscale neighbors out of precious gifts; each neighbor is hoping to be named the sole heir to Volpone's estate, and all are willing to corrupt themselves in the process. These scavengers are appropriately named Voltore ("vulture"), Corvina ("raven") and Cornaccio ("crow"). Volpone and his servant Mosca ("fly") relish the art of the con as much as the cash, and are nearly overthrown when a last-minute turn of events -- led by Erminella, a character created by Musto and Campbell -- rescues them.

To list the eclectic mix of styles Musto draws from in his music is not to degrade it. Snippets of jazz and washes of atonality bump against lyrical passages, waltzes and pop hooks. It comes across as an agile, fizzy melange with tasteful nods to Rossini, Bernstein and Broadway.

Only occasionally is the music too busy, clashing with Campbell's already rapidly moving text.

On the whole, the words and music interlock ingeniously, often in hilarious combinations between several characters. Musto and Campbell ride the speech patterns of the English language with a natural clarity.

"Volpone's" roles are not deeply drawn, which can lead performers to try either injecting some profundity into their characters or to go into over-the-top mode to enhance the comedy. Both strategies were evident Friday.

Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller, so expressive with her big Bette Davis eyes and fluttery voice, was deliciously funny as Corvina, conned into disinheriting her moralizing son, Bonario, sung by the strong-voiced Steven Sanders. Baritone Museop Kim, as the lawyer Voltore, played his role with a cooler head and warmly rounded tones. Tenor Rodell Rosel seemed to put a touch of the late comic actor Paul Lynde in his performance -- fussy and high-strung, especially when forced to lend his virgin bride, Celia (sweet-voiced Anne-Carolyn Bird), to the glutinous Volpone. Faith Sherman, as Erminella (dressed more like a bride than a brothel owner), sang one of the opera's longest arias with a trace of coloratura atop her large voice.

The role of Mosca contains as much music as Volpone's. Jeremy Little applied his light but firm tenor voice well, with every word intelligible, yet he remained faintly aloof. Joshua Jeremiah, a husky, deep-voiced baritone, created a carefree Volpone, singing with flexibility and abandon, clearly enjoying his scams.

Additional roles were enthusiastically performed, including a trio of crooked judges and Volpone's house attendants, who reprised a Renaissance-styled motet. Erhard Rom's simple yet adaptable set was bathed in burnished gold. Sara Jobin's nimble conducting kept the comedy bouncing right along.

Truly funny operas, like "Volpone" (originally commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation), are rare these days. We've been in a dry spell, it seems, since the day Rossini retired. In a world that tends to regard comedies as second-class works of art, "Volpone" stands out not only for its humor but also its brilliant marriage of words and music.

Other performances are Friday and Sunday.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company