MUSTO Bastianello BOLCOM Lucrezia
Lisa Vroman (Amadora, Ettalina, Stelladora); Sasha Cooke (Ortensia, Eustacia); Michael Barrett (piano)
LUCREZIA Sasha Cooke (Lucrezia); Matt Boehler (Chucho); Paul Appleby (Lorenzo); Patrick Mason (Ignacio); Lisa Vroman (Annunciata); Steven Blier (piano).
Bridge 9299 (2 CDs)
Commonplace wisdom suggests
that nobody is writing short
comic operas anymore. Wrong!
The enterprising New York Festival of Song added two such gems to
the repertoire in 2007 when it commissioned the American composers John Musto and William Bolcom to create brief opere buffe
to librettos by Mark Campbell, using five singers from the ensemble along with the festival’s artistic directors, Michael Barrett and Steven Blier, on pianos.
Presented as a double bill, Musto’s Bastianello and Bolcom’s Lucrezia received their world premieres by these forces at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in March 2008. This premier recording derives from a subsequent performance at the Caramoor Center for Music in Katonah, N.Y. In both works the writing for vocals and keyboards is expert, the mirth quotient high. I can imagine any number of small opera ensembles and college and university opera workshops wishing to produce them.
Bastianello, based on an Italian folk tale, mixes the ridiculous with
the bittersweet, as it muses on the transitory nature of things and the power of forgiveness. Furious to find his bride Amadora and his in-laws drowning their apprehensions in wine, Bastianello (who also functions as the work’s narrator) marches off in search of people stupider than they. He succeeds, finding (among others) an elderly fisherman who believes the moon’s reflection in the rippling waters
of a lake is the face of his late wife, who drowned in an accident.
Musto’s score dresses the serio-comic fable in pungent tonal harmonies that mix major and minor triads to dramatically apposite effect. The curtain of absurdity parts long enough to allow for gently melancholic moments such as the fisherman’s lament for his lost love. The rhymed couplets of Campbell’s clever text include a passing reference to The Sound of Music.
Lucrezia applies the humor with a much broader brushstroke. This is an unabashed sex farce, based on Machiavelli’s (yes, that Machiavelli) La Mandragola (‘The Mandrake Root’), that satirizes lust, greed, deception and the priesthood. The title character, a beautiful young woman married to a codger who can’t furnish her with a child, plots her own seduction by a younger man. Bolcom has called the piece “a zarzuela as imagined by the Marx Brothers” – with, he might have added, a bit of Barbiere di Siviglia thrown in for good measure.
The contemporary Argentinian setting gives the now-72-year-old Bolcom a chance to throw bits of local color (chiefly tangos and fandangos) into his eclectic musical stew, which bubbles merrily
also thanks to the sly, Sondheimesque rhyming of Campbell’s lyrics,
as in the following exchange between Lucrezia and her would-be lover Lorenzo, who is disguised as a priest. She: “But what if the act/
With the stranger/Should give me pleasure?/And does in fact,/
Thrill me,/Excite me,/Make me feel…/Beatific?” He: “Could you be more specific?”
On the basis of this recording I would call the Bolcom opera the more successful of the two works musically, but I would refrain from passing conclusive judgment until I see how each work plays in the theater. It’s hard to imagine more winning performances than these by the original casts. The NYFOS singers are called on to play double, triple, and even quadruple roles. They throw themselves into their parts with charm and gusto.
For the record, Paul Appleby portrays the younger Bastianello and Lorenzo; Sasha Cooke, Ortensia and Lucrezia; Matt Boehler, Luciano and Chucho; Lisa Vroman, Amadora and Annunciata, and Patrick Mason, the elder Bastianello and Ignacio. The supportive pianists Barrett and Blier lack nothing in verve. Enthusiastic audience applause is included.