Most opera plots are sordid cesspools of betrayal, murder, suicide, illicit sex and double dealing. Needless to say, this can get a little wearing, so writers began inserting short comic scenes between acts. By the late 18th century, these intermezzi had evolved into a full-length form all their own, called opera buffa. Back in the day, one of the most popular and successful opere buffe was Vicente Martín y Soler's Una Cosa Rara, which was performed regularly all over Europe for nearly half a century.
Martín y Soler was a hack who worked hard to please whatever royal patron was paying the freight. Early in his career, he composed one piece that had a spot for the king of Naples to participate as soloist by firing a cannon at the climax. Later he moved on to the Russian court, where he ground out music to support the czarina Catherine the Great's attempt at writing a libretto. Mostly, he composed fluffy pop operas, where one-dimensional characters loved and fought to simple tunes you could whistle on the way home. Last Sunday night Opera Theatre of Saint Louis offered a brand-new, modernized version of Martín y Soler's little meal ticket.
I saw Una Cosa Rara on opening night. The audience loved it. The Loretto-Hilton rolled with laugher and the cast and crew were sent off into the starlit and muggy night with a standing ovation.
That was them. I found it a pointless and unfunny mishmash of potentially good ideas gone bad.
The modernization starts with a new English-language libretto by Hugh Macdonald. It's listed as a translation, but it is actually a complete rewrite. Macdonald, a professor of music at Washington University, has inserted, with comedic intent, lots of linguistic anachronisms. He rhymes "work" with "dork," has one character urge another to "stay on message" and gives us a little ditty from a "battered husband" (a peasant farmer who has just been slapped by his wife).
Director Chas Rader-Shieber and set designer David Zinn have extended the anachronism theme into their staging of Macdonald's script. Plastic pink flamingos are everywhere, Queen Isabella of Spain shows up puffing a Winston and is greeted by cheers played on a wind-up Victrola. Every character is burdened with silly shtick, with props ranging from stuffed sheep to overstuffed mouthfuls of food. There is much running around and falling down. My guess is that Rader-Shieber and Zinn were going for zany. But all the hustle and bustle mostly underscores the fact that the opera has only a microfilament of plot and even less actual humor.
What Una Cosa Rara does have is a collection of eminently singable tunes and a cast of gifted comic singers working hard to wring humor out of them. Left to their own devices, they often succeed. Foremost among the eight featured vocalists are Keith Phares and Maureen McKay as shepherd and shepherdess Lubino and Lilla, whose impending nuptials the rest of the cast is intent on preventing. They sing admirably separately and beautifully together. Mary Wilson is a regally absurd and vocally authoritative Queen Isabella; rich-voiced tenor Alek Shrader is her dimwitted son; and the equally mellifluous Paul Appleby his conniving valet. Kira Duffy's sweet soprano joins the bass-baritone of Matthew Burns as Gita and Tita, two battling lovers, while David Kravitz mugs his way through his role as village mayor with a supple baritone.
Their harmonies, like the melodies they sing, are simple and catchy, awakening every ounce of beauty in Martín y Soler's pleasantly pretty music. Likewise, conductor Corrado Rovaris led the orchestra seamlessly through the score and provided ample support and plenty of creative room for the singers in his OTSL debut.