Opera companies devote a lot of energy to thinking about how to make the art form relevant (that dubious buzzword) to a contemporary audience. On Friday night, the Wolf Trap Opera offered an answer — in the form of a 250-year-old opera nobody has ever heard of.
Because here’s one thing that hasn’t changed in 250 years: the act of putting on an opera.
The opera-within-an-opera concept is hardly unusual, from “Ariadne auf Naxos” (Strauss) to Mozart’s “The Impresario.” But “L’Opera Seria,” a 1769 opus by Florian Leopold Gassmann, which had never before been produced in the United States, lingers lovingly over it, in three acts, and thus has time to present send-ups of every type you might encounter behind the scenes: the entitled diva, the insufferable tenor, the temperamental composer. This sounds like the stuff of cliche, but the stage director, Matthew Ozawa, had so much fun creating the individual characters (allegedly modeled on actual people he has worked with) that one was too amused to notice.
If you’ve ever been in a community theater production, you’ll find much to recognize here; if you’re an opera fan, it will be even funnier. Gassmann sends up baroque opera, at length and with skill, complete with elaborate arias that the singers have to sing while the rehearsal (in Act 2) runs chaotically around them (the composer and librettist arguing over words; the choreographer getting distracted by the exact placement of a tree). In Act 3, we get the whole over-the-top spectacle, complete with a rowdy and partisan audience taking sides like sports fans, led by a trio of stage parents taking photos and booing one another’s offspring. This may be the closest many of us in the audience had ever gotten to actual baroque performance practice.
When a show is supposed to be funny, it can make a critic seek out the flaws with special focus. I suppose I could say that “L’Opera Seria” goes on a bit too long, or that some of the young singers were a little taxed by their roles. Frankly, though, I was laughing too hard to be very bothered.
Since I often complain that opera takes itself too seriously, it is delightful to see young artists having fun onstage. Some of them had really fine voices. Clarissa Lyons as Stonatrilla, the slightly over-the-hill prima donna, had an arresting, magisterial voice and presence; Kihun Yoon as Sospiro, the librettist, had a huge rich baritone and natural buffo flair. Richard Ollarsaba was strong as the harried impresario trying to keep the show from collapsing around him. The trio of stage parents (Jeanne Ireland, Talin Nalbandian and Thomas Glass), culled from Wolf Trap’s studio artist program, made up for small parts with big singing.
Stealing the evening, though, was Christian Zaremba as Passagallo, the dancing master. Zaremba already stood out this summer, vocally and dramatically, as Collatinus, the husband in the stark, tragic “The Rape of Lucretia.” For “L’Opera Seria,” he donned bandanna, sweats, legwarmers and a dancer’s floating gait, and, dragging nervously on a cigarette, fussed over every detail of the performance and came up with artistic “inspirations,” deciding, at one juncture, that the aria of the pretty young soubrette Porporina (Amy Owens) would be best accompanied by a pair of dolphins thrusting from the midsections of two onstage extras while Owens clutched a brace of fish. Zaremba has the comedian’s gift of playing his role absolutely seriously, and he sings well to boot. I found myself wishing Wolf Trap would make Passagallo a recurring character, like Borat, appearing on the sidelines of every future opera performance with earnest suggestions and an occasional pirouette.
In the pit, Eric Melear fended off innuendo from Porporina (who pointed out that an aging singer can always marry a conductor) and got a snappy performance from a chamber orchestra that, at one point, is called on to play out of tune.
Kim Pensinger Witman, Wolf Trap’s senior director, said she had long been wanting to stage this opera, and you can see why: It’s adroitly written and great fun, with lots of roles and lots of meat for a young cast. The music itself is interesting as a peek into the work of an accomplished composer writing during Mozart’s teen years, with Rossinian antecedents in, for example, the chaotic Act 1 finale. It’s not all easy, and the role of the tenor, especially, may need someone with more experience and vocal support than Alasdair Kent. But it sure is fun — and if you call yourself an opera fan, you will be glad you went.
L’Opera Seria will be performed again Wednesday and Saturday at 7:30 pm at the Wolf Trap Barns.