In performance: Wolf Trap Opera
Wolf Trap appeals with modest one-acters by living composers
by Anne Midgette
The Wolf Trap Opera Company is one of the most likable organizations in the business. Devoted to fostering up-and-coming singers -- newly out of conservatory or finishing apprenticeships -- it's both enterprising and endearingly open. Its general director, Kim Pensinger Witman, even documents the whole process of auditioning singers and putting on shows in a lively blog that affords aspiring singers, and the rest of us, an invaluable look behind the curtain.
This likability was fully displayed Friday night when the company presented its annual showcase for alumni, the one-act operas "Bastianello" and "Lucrezia" on the Discovery Series at the Barns at Wolf Trap. Both pieces had texts by Mark Campbell, the librettist of John Musto's 2007 Wolf Trap commission "Volpone," which was a hit, was subsequently recorded, and won the company its first Grammy nomination this year. "Bastianello" was set by Musto, and "Lucrezia" by William Bolcom, whom Washington National Opera audiences remember, most recently, from the 2007 production of "A View From the Bridge."
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The pairing -- commissioned by the New York Festival of Song and first presented in New York in 2008 -- makes sense. Both Musto and Bolcom are composers who understand about setting the human voice; both move easily between so-called high art and cabaret- or cocktail-style songs (of which Bolcom, in particular, has a formidable arsenal); and both have made a point of exploring comedy on stage. ("People think 'opera' and think something big and serious and tragic," Musto said to me in a 2006 interview.)
Since the lyrics were by the same person, the contrast also shed light on the composers' different approaches to text setting. Musto's is intricate, yet translucent: tricky rhythms and beautifully interwoven vocal lines. I thought fleetingly of Britten in the spare vocal quartet of the toast to love that frames the action (the folk tale of a bridegroom who, infuriated by his bride's carelessness at letting the wine run out on their wedding night, goes off in search of six people more foolish than she is). And the denouement, in which the groom encounters the last of the six fools - a fisherman casting his net into a lake trying to haul up the reflection of the full moon, which he mistakes for his drowned wife - had a haunting bittersweet poignancy: The pianos shivered out the sound of the casting net, and keened while the man sang of his loss.
Bolcom is more conventionally operatic, and comedic: He asks his singers to make bigger, plummier sounds, and his music kept nudging you in the ribs. "Lucrezia" is full of winks and belly laughs and send-ups of Spanish style. Set in Argentina, it's the story of a man who spots a beautiful woman on a balcony and schemes, successfully, to get into her bed, in spite of her husband and her mother, through a series of comic-opera wiles and farcical disguises. (There's a passing reference to "The Barber of Seville's" Rosina, among other quotes.)
It was a fine way to show off a group of active young singers, many of whom have been heard in other capacities in the area (the strong baritone Alexander Tall appeared in Lorin Maazel's "Albert Herring" at Castleton in 2008). Rodell Rosel, who sang in the world premiere of "The Letter" in Santa Fe last summer, pushed his attractive tenor a little too hard in a night that called for a lot of singing. Rebekah Camm, who cited her work in Woody Allen's production of "Gianni Schicchi" in Los Angeles as a post-Wolf Trap highlight, sang her comic roles with piercing power. Faith Sherman offered a rounder, darker sound as the romantic lead in both operas; and Nicholas Masters showed a bass voice at once stentorian and agile, a foretaste of his return to Wolf Trap this summer in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which he will play Bottom.
Nick Olcott's semi-staging told the story in time-honored workshop style, with nothing more than chairs and a couple of ladders. And the two pianists who furnished the accompaniment did yeoman service. One was David Shimoni, who did the work's premiere in New York. The other was Witman herself, who hosted the evening, accompanied it and blogged about it afterward, confirming her status as the most full-service of opera administrators -- and a big reason Wolf Trap is such a nice company.
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