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Volpone at the Barns at Wolf Trap

Celia (Anne-Carolyn Bird), Bonario (Steven Sanders), Corvina (Lisa Hopkins Seegmiller), Mosca (Jeremy Little), and Voltore (Museop Kim), Wolf Trap Opera
Premiered three years ago as part of a new mission to cultivate composers and librettists, Wolf Trap commissioned the comic chamber opera Volpone and is now giving the work another run. Volpone (composed by John Musto on a libretto by Mark Campbell) is loosely based on the work of the same name by Elizabethan dramatist and purported rival of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and explores the theme of unscrupulous greed. Indeed, the work opens with a ritual of Volpone bathing himself in gold coins while singing “art, love, sex cannot compare; though, the last one can come close.”

The plot is based on the connivance of Volpone (while feigning grave sickness) and his servant Mosca to swindle three “legacy-seeking scavengers” by assuring that each would be named his sole heir. Volpone then asks Corvina (one of the scavengers) to disinherit her own son (Bonario) and name himself as heir. Volpone even persuades Cornaccio (another scavenger) to plan a sexual liaison with his beautiful, chaste wife (Celia), who is fresh from the convent. From this point – full of hyperbole, sexual innuendo, and shameless greed – the rhyming libretto cleverly becomes very complex, which results in multiple court scenes and prison sentences, Volpone’s faked death after signing his will over to his servant Mosca, and a happy ending.

Celia (Anne-Carolyn Bird) and Volpone (Joshua Winograde Joshua Jeremiah -- apologies!), Wolf Trap Opera
Overall, the strong libretto overshadows the music, which has appealing characteristics of Britten and Bernstein. Instead of conveying drama musically, the singers primarily convey a lot of witty text. This would be a different case if there were significant changes of tempo throughout the work and if Musto had used harmonic tools other than descending sequences. Such uniformity of musical texture was possibly a hindrance. Melismas were heard only on the word “Genoa,” the final destination of Volpone, Mosca, and Mosca’s mother, Erminella, at the work’s conclusion where they plan to share the gold (don’t hold your breath). Volpone’s value as entertainment is without question, though one yearns for the magical dramatic moments that opera can provide (even opera buffa). The potential of the Musto/Campbell pair is limitless, a recognition confirmed by their impressive list of new opera commissions in the pipeline. One is also keen to hear Musto's non-operatic works (piano concertos, Book of Uncommon Prayer, and chamber music, etc.) and more CD releases of his music.

Other Reviews:

Tom Huizenga, 'Volpone': Putting On Heirs (Washington Post, June 25)

T. L. Ponick, Sly 'Fox' appears in Vienna woods (Washington Times, June 25)
Tenor Steven Sanders (Bonario) was musically and dramatically strong, as were Jeremy Little (Mosca), Rodel Rosell (Cornaccio), and Anne-Carolyn Bird (Celia). Surprisingly, Sanders was the only singer in the cast without the disappointing habit of singing ‘r’ in a closed American way. Besides those mentioned above, the rest of the cast were perhaps undersinging slightly because they were in an intimate 380-seat reconstructed 18th-century barn. Although audible for the most part, those that undersang were not able to counterbalance the orchestra in terms of musical strength.

Conductor Sara Jobin demanded and received a steady energy from the orchestra, while director Peter Kazaras and scenic designer Erhard Rom created an effective, efficient routine of multiple scene changes done by the singers during musical interludes. This involved turning the main platform on stage and allowed for momentum never to be lost due to the set.

See this opera for yourself (June 29 and July 1), and look forward to the upcoming premieres of this capable pair: Later the Same Evening in November 2007, inspired by five Edward Hopper paintings and co-commissioned by the National Gallery of Art and University of Maryland; Bastianello/Lucrezia in March 2008, two 50-minute comic operas commissioned by the New York Festival of Song; and another comic opera commissioned by Wolf Trap and the Opera Theater of St. Louis, scheduled for 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The singer portraying Volpone is Joshua Jeremiah, not Joshua Winograde. Mr. Winograde premiered the role in 2004, and is currently the Administrator of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio, a program for undergraduate singers.