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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Opera Review: The Roman, the Witches, and the Wardrobe

Gotham Chamber Opera celebrates 10 years with Il Sogno del Scipione.
by Paul Pelkonen
Three on a mattress: Christine Biller (with shoe) Marie-Éve Munger and Michele Angelini
in Il Sogno del Scipione. Photo by Erin Baiano © 2012 Gotham Chamber Opera.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Il Sogno del Scipione ("Scipio's Dream") was written in 1772, when the composer was just 16 years old. Although the works of Mozart's adolescence have enjoyed some popularity in recent years, this allegorical opera seria has faced a long, hard rehabilitation. In 1913, musicologist Edward Dent labeled it as "formal and uninspired."

Happily, Wednesday night's premiere of the Gotham Chamber Opera's new production of Scipione (mounted by director Christopher Alden to commemorate the company's 10th anniversary) found much dramatic gold in this work. Scipione takes place almost entirely in the subconscious of its title character (sung by Michele Angelini). This is not the Roman general whose battlefield skill defeated Hannibal and won the Second Punic War--but his nephew and heir. What's really at stake though, is the conflict between goddesses: Constanza (Constancy, sung by Marie-Ève Munger) and Fortuna, (Fortune) played by Susannah Biller.

Mr. Alden places all three singers in bed together at the start of the one-act piece, an idea which recalls the opening of Der Rosenkavalier. The action is confined to one room, with no exits save the window. There is luxuriant shag carpeting, a wardrobe, and globe lighting that descends to indicate the heavenly spheres. Moving the work to New York (or possibly an IKEA® showroom) Mr. Alden explained (in a program note) that he chose a dramatic sensibility derived from the 1997 Robert Downey film Two Girls and a Guy.

Mr. Angelini is the major vocal discovery here, a flexable lyric tenor with an agile portamento and a pleasing, rounded low end. His sky-scraping final aria "Di che si l'arbitra'" was a heroic, compelling vocal workout, all the more so since the singer dressed himself, complete with tying a tie in a full Windsor knot without dropping a note. He was helped by the crisp leadership of Neal Goren in the Lynch Theater's small orchestra pit.

The two female leads were less pleasing. Mozart wrote considerably challenging arias for his two goddesses, but the singers added shrieks and stretched for difficult notes high above the stave. The personifications of Constancy and Fortune serves as harbingers of the Queen of the Night, who arrived some 20 years later. However, the young composer did not have the economy of thought that pervades Zauberflöte, and their long string of da capo arias proved exhausting.

Of the two goddesses, Ms. Biller excelled at chewing the scenery while rotating through a seemingly endless supply of costumes, from cowgirl to dominatrix to acid-green Coco Chanel. "A chi serena io giro" has a plethora of virtuoso passages. This leggy singer managed to make these over-written repeats more fun by moving around and acting as she switched outfits and moods. Constancy is naturally more restrained dramatically. Ms. Munger brought an even higher level of virtuosity to her part, tossing off arias like "Biancheggia il mar lo scoglio" and drawing her rival's wrath.

Far better was soprano Rachel Willis Sørensen in the small but crucial role of Licenza. This character is an Epilogue, addressing Mozart's patron and expressing good will towards the audience. Ms. Sørensen had an appealing stage presence, a plush, potent tone and her own acrobatics above the stave that never ventured into shrillness. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera's 2010 National Council Auditions, she is a singer on the way up.

The rest of the cast exists mostly in small parts. Of these, Scipio's uncle Publio (Arthur Espirito) and father Emilio (Chad A. Johnson) delivered impressive arias with their share of physical effort. Mr. Espirito did the entire performance on crutches with one leg tied back to indicate an amputation. Mr. Johnson arrived onstage in a wheelchair, emerging from a near catatonic state to sing with a pleasing tenor.

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