There's an appealing edge to shoestring opera. At Mount Vernon College's recent evening of Mozart scenes, a shawl transformed mezzo-soprano Debra Lawrence into a Sevillian noblewoman; a ladder transported bass Mark Hart to a Turkish fig grove. But it was the singers, given a few trinkets and a few yards of space in Post Hall, who tapped Mozart's brilliant characterizations in 20 minutes or less.
Since last year's "Viva Mozart!" program, some of the singers have grown as artists -- especially soprano Susan Zaboji, who performed the servant roles. A newcomer, Byron Jones, was a dazzling but all-too-brief presence. His lustrous baritone voice compensated for some stage awkwardness. With her richly colored soprano, Lawrence made the wistful "Porgi, amor" linger long after the opening bits from "Figaro." Although Hart gave up on believability in the "Abduction From the Seraglio's" fig grove antics, his cutting-up in "Vivat Bacchus" was highly entertaining. Mary Beth Tanner's armor-piercing soprano and stiff acting were never a welcome addition to the ensemble. Her dull and conventional Dona Ana, with a poker face and a self-righteous attitude, was dead weight in "Sola, sola in bujo loco."
Elizabeth Vrenios-Kirkpatrick's direction was narrowly focused on characters' individual feelings, but effective given her limitations. As each opera is entered when imbroglio peaks, with servants and masters wearing each other's clothes, an intermediary is a good idea. But her portrayal of 18th-century diva Katharina Cavalieri went nowhere. Salieri's mistress and Mozart's favorite soprano, Cavalieri might have inspired Kirkpatrick to share juicy tidbits on the idea of Mozart scenes in 1991 Washington, or on Cavalieri herself. Instead, audiences yawned through tired "Amadeus" hand-me-downs. Haven't we heard Emperor Franz Joseph's "too many notes" line too many times?