For the concluding offering of an offbeat season, the Wolf Trap Opera has served up a pair of curiosities: “Bastianello” by John Musto and “The Juniper Tree” by Philip Glass and Robert Moran. Though both are based on old tales, there’s little to connect them. The two works explore the silliest and darkest sides of marriage — love blooms (after much comedy) in the first; murderous hatred (out of jealousy) in the second.
Opera at the Barns always involves compromises because of limited space (there are no wings) and budget. Audience imagination is at a premium; both operas prominently feature a tree, but there was none onstage for either, and there was really no set at all for “Bastianello.” There were often problems with the projected surtitles. I’m not convinced of either piece’s long-term value, nor of the effectiveness of pairing them, but this was still an absorbing evening of theater. Director R.B. Schlather handled the most lurid moments of “The Juniper Tree” with startling, Kabuki-like tableaux, and the casts worked energetically to bring out characterization.
Indeed, individual performances have always been the highlight of WTO shows. These young singers, culled through rigorous nationwide auditions, consistently deliver blazing vocalism and stagecraft of the highest quality. Soprano Summer Hassan appeared in both operas, and the glories of her voice fully justified the prominence. Her colleagues were hardly less excellent, and even the tiny roles, taken by apprentice singers, were strikingly well sung.
“Bastianello,” Musto’s third opera, premiered nine years ago. He is a communicative composer, seeking to go beyond scene or character and create music that is memorable on its own terms. The style is a juiced-up version of conservative Americana from the middle of the last century, exemplified by such composers as Virgil Thomson and Walter Piston. High-quality stuff. My only criticism would be that the mournful sincerity of the final scene felt incongruous after the goofiness of the rest of the show. Based on an Italian folk tale, the libretto was by Mark Campbell, although his way with words became grating after awhile.
The two composers of “The Juniper Tree,” Glass and Moran, divvied up the opera’s scenes, and neither of them made any effort to sound like the other. I was unfamiliar with Moran’s work, but his cogent, dramatic voice was a welcome balance to the static longueurs of Glass. This opera (from 1985) was longer, darker and much more elaborate than the first, with a large cast, some crazy costumes and Raggedy Ann makeup. Based on a Grimm fairy tale, with libretto by Arthur Yorinks, the story involves a woman who comes to fear and resent her stepson, arranging to kill and feed him to his father. Some of the staging would certainly have been different in a proper theater with wings, and Schlather had some misfires. But again, despite this or that puzzler, it was an absorbing evening, with fine singing and arresting moments of theater.
The production runs through Aug. 19 at the Barns.