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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Opera Review: Digging in the Dirt

On Site Opera puts on Mozart in a community garden.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gardening at night: Ashley Fox is Lady Violet in Mozart's The Secret Gardiner.
Photo by Fay Fox courtesy Unison Media.
On Site Opera has built its reputation by staging unusual works in some decidedly odd locations around New York. On Thursday night, Eric Einhorn's little opera company invaded the West Side Community Garden for the first of three performances of The Secret Gardener. A co-production with Atlanta Opera, this is an adaptation of Mozart's opera La Finta Gardeniera, written for the Munich stage when the composer was just 18. It is one of his important early opera buffa, and its rapid succession of arias and ensembles (there is no chorus) hints at the brilliance that was to come.

The plot of Gardener is fairly standard 18th century opera buffa. There are three mismatched couples in the Milanese formal gardens of the Podesta (tenor Jonathan Blalock.) The unhappy Ramiro (Kristin Gornstein) yearns for the beautiful yet imperious Arminda (Maeve Höglund). She is engaged to the bumptuos Count Belfiore (Spencer Viator) whose chief flaw is a hot temper. Meanwhile, Belfiore's ex Lady Violet (Ashley Kerr) is disguised and employed as a gardener along with her assistant Robert (Jorell Williams.) He is in turn smitten with the maid Serpetta. In the end, everyone gets married.

The audience was seated in rings, around a central acting amphitheater with certain seats marked off for use by the seven singing actors. They used the entire area of the Garden (about the size of one New York City housing lot) orbiting through the audience and sometimes singing from behind one's head, depending on the seat. The grassy area in the center featured the main action, with big set pieces like Arminda's mad scene and the comic finales being reserved for this area.

The cast featured a bouquet of fine voices, some of them light in weight but all with the agility and precision needed to keep up with Mozart's demands. The only flaw was in the innovative idea of having the singers move while singing. This occasionally produced an unsettling Doppler effect or muted a voice against the orchestra. The balance was not always perfect but the charm of the setting and the energy of the young cast made one want to overlook these flaws. On the whole the experiment worked.

Standout singers included Ms. Gornstein, a canny artist in a travesti part that was, like many early Mozart operas, written for a castrato. Ms. Höglund had the biggest voice here, her florid coloratura indicating the character's instability along with her willingness to threaten her fiancée with castration. Ashley Kerr had a lovely, sweet soprano but one sensed that her part was heavily reduced. Jorell Williams made the most of his comic opportunities in an aria where he seduced the reluctant Serpetta by switching languages, an idea that reminded this writer of the film A Fish Called Wanda.

The audience too was occasionally pulled into the action, making the already intimate evening feel even more so. For example, when Ms. Gornstein's Ramiro sang the great longing aria in Act II, she handed out photographs of Arminda. Audience members held these obediently until the angry Ms. Höglund showed up to snatch them back again. Minimal props (a plastic rake that the smitten Belfiore danced with, a purple hose that Arminda used to tie up both of her suitors before deciding what to do) added to the charming comic atmosphere. The costumes were simple and modern, each suited to the characters.

This was a pruning of the original three-hour work, cutting the show back to a lean 90 minutes. Out went some of the plot details, the courtiers in a Milanese garden dressing as Roman gods, and much of the orchestration. Geoffrey McDonald conducted Grand Harmonie, a band of six winds, two natural horns and a double bass, which proved entirely appropriate for the intimate setting. It wasn't quite the original work, but given the challenges of staging opera al fresco the English translation and adaptation by Kelly Rourke was more than adequate.

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