Let's hear it for fluff and fun and frivolity and for the kind of opera that may leave you feeling intellectually hungry again an hour later.
That's what's being done this weekend by the Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia -- and not a moment too soon.
It's no problem to make an opera out of a significant story such as "Don Giovanni" or "Go tterda mmerung." Well, not much of a problem; at least you have a subject that gives your work substance and provides you with hints of the appropriate style. The rest is (or can be) a matter of technical skill, patience and a willingness to work hard.
Last night in the Gunston Arts Center Theatre in Arlington, the Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia showed two rarely seen examples of the more challenging theatrical art: making something out of nothing. In America, this art has reached a high level of development on television; in France, it has occasionally been cultivated by opera composers who produce masterpieces of style without the least hint of substance.
The one-act operas chosen for this demonstration were "An Incomplete Education" ("Une Education Manque'e") by Emmanuel Chabrier and "Ange'lique" by Jacques Ibert. Both composers are best known for their vivid orchestral music -- Chabrier for the brilliant "Espanåa" Rhapsody, Ibert for the highly descriptive "Ports of Call" ("Escales") and for the best-known saxophone concerto in the repertoire. With John Niles expertly conducting a small but capable orchestra, and with bright, well-focused stage direction by Muriel Von Villas, the evening enhanced and enlarged the reputations of both composers.
These brief, witty operas are a solidly French tradition, best represented perhaps in Ravel's "L'Heure Espagnole" and most abundantly represented in hundreds of short musical skits composed by Jacques Offenbach. But the roots of this art go far back in French literature, all the way to the medieval fabliaux -- short, usually humorous narratives, composed in verse and transmitted primarily in the oral tradition.
"An Incomplete Education" tells the tragicomic story of a young couple who marry and begin their honeymoon without a clear idea of exactly what married people are supposed to do with one another. "Ange'lique" is the story of a man's effort to get rid of a shrewish wife, who beats and curses him, by selling her. One by one, three customers (an Italian, an Englishman and a Moor) buy Ange'lique but soon return her asking for a refund. When her husband wishes she would go to the Devil, that dignitary appears in a puff of smoke, wraps his capacious cloak around Ange'lique and whisks her away -- only to regret it later. Theatrically and musically, the Ibert piece has considerably more vitality and complexity than the Chabrier, but the Chabrier is nonetheless highly enjoyable.
Both works (given in English) are in the ope'ra comique style, with spoken dialogue connecting musical numbers that often make relatively modest demands on the players' voices. In last night's program (which will be repeated tomorrow afternoon), Teresa Ann Reid stood out in the role of Ange'lique -- a terror to all who came near her. Tenor Robert Baker and bass-baritone Stephen Carter-Hicks ably filled roles in both works. Laurie Nelson performed fetchingly as the bride in "An Incomplete Education" and Lewis Freeman was vocally and visually vivid as Ange'lique's henpecked husband.
Peter Bruce Clegg brought a striking stage presence to the role of the Devil, and Susan Zaboji and Karen Eriksen gave exactly the right flavor to the roles of two gossips. Also effective in small roles were Daniel Waters and Henry Burroughs. Louis Stancari's sets demonstrated that a limited budget need not limit the imagination.