“Bastianello” and “Lucrezia,” the two one-act operas that Urban Arias presented at Arlington’s Artisphere on Friday night, sound like an operatic pairing from the 19th century. The titles evoke the operatic past. So do the plots, folksy comic parables involving foolish husbands and cheating wives. And so, at least superficially, does the music: mainly tonal, largely number-based and melodic.
But these aren’t 19th-century operas. They were written in 2008 by two adroit vocal composers, John Musto (“Bastianello”) and William Bolcom (“Lucrezia”), and they hover in a curious space between operatic tradition and contemporary awareness. There’s nothing about them of a send-up, or even of a homage. They are serious and well-crafted little works, appealing directly to opera’s sense of timelessness, and therefore somehow anachronistic. They do well at what they do, which includes appealing to people who already like opera and want something new; they certainly aren’t making any overt play to tap into a 21st-century sensibility.
What’s not to like? “Bastianello,” set in 18th-century Italy, is the story of a man who gets in a quarrel with his in-laws and new wife on his wedding night and sets out to find six people more foolish than they are. “Lucrezia” is about a lusty woman married to an older man who wants a son, and the young would-be lover who figures out a way to get into her bed and make everyone happy. Add five singers (playing several roles each in “Bastianello”) and two pianos, and you have a nice, manageable evening for producers and audiences, which means these pieces are getting quite a bit of play. They were last seen in the D.C. area in a performance at Wolf Trap (which has presented two other Musto operas) in 2010.
The music, as I said when I saw the works in 2010, is better than the stories would indicate by quite a lot; indeed, one of the pleasures of re-encountering these pieces was savoring the two-piano scores and the vocal writing. The clever librettos, by the ubiquitous Mark Campbell, are springboards that allow both composers to have some easy fun, launching Musto into long, sinuous, intertwining piano lines and Bolcom into a string of adroit musical numbers. If Musto sounds more elegant, it seemed to me, with this cast at least, that Bolcom actually writes more effectively to show off the voice. This impression was partly reinforced by the casting — the tenor Alex Mansoori sounded a lot better and more comfortable as Lorenzo, the ardent and slightly foolish young lover in Bolcom’s “Lucrezia” than he did in Musto’s “Bastianello,” which seemed to lie in an awkward upper-middle range of his voice that would have fitted another singer better.
What Urban Arias was offering was the works’ first fully staged professional performance (directed by Alan Paul), though on the small scale of both this company and Wolf Trap, the distinction between a semi-staged and fully staged production can seem veritably Talmudic. (Urban Arias might beg to differ on the grounds of the price of the 18th-century costumes alone.) Paul’s production was as serviceable and pleasant as the works themselves, though in at least one instance I found Wolf Trap’s sketchier rendition more telling. The scene in which Luciano, the questing husband, encounters a fisherman casting his nets into the water to capture the reflection of the moon was more haunting in the sparer, less literal depiction at Wolf Trap than in Paul’s more prosaic depiction. (It was further troubled by the fact that the cast net several times came uncomfortably close to hitting members of the audience.)
If Urban Arias is presenting small-scale opera, it is doing it with many singers you might well encounter on the stage of the Washington National Opera; it’s a treat to encounter some of them at close range, while the intimacy of presentation helps compensate for the weaknesses of others. Each of the five singers played several roles in “Bastianello,” with Catherine Martin offering a big, warm mezzo as the young bride and in various other parts, and Erin Sanzero with an assured high soprano as the mother-in-law. (Kudos to both composers, incidentally, for reversing the expected vocal hierarchy by casting the romantic lead as a mezzo, and the soprano as the mother, in both operas.) Tom Corbeil sang capably in big parts in both works, and Keith Phares offered a firm baritone in the various father roles. The pianists, David Hanlon and R. Timothy McReynolds, positioned antiphonally at either side of the performance space, did admirably and had perhaps the most rewarding assignment, playing well-written contemporary music that people are going to like.
The pairing leaves me musing about what, in the 21st century, opera is striving to be. There is certainly one school of thought that has it that contemporary relevance is diametrically opposed to the things that we love about the canonical operatic and symphonic repertory. Those who agree should hasten to see this enjoyable but slender double bill. I just can’t help feeling that with all of the talent and energy involved, the whole project could add up to a little more.
“Bastianello” and “Lucrezia” continue at Urban Arias, in the black box theater at Artisphere in Arlington, through Sunday.