Saturday, April 21, 2012

Il Sogno di Scipione: con lieto sembiante

The Dream of Scipio (Raphael) 
A Roman general's allegorical dream, and portents of his future glories, might not initially strike contemporary audiences as engaging matter for an evening at the opera house. The same might be said of a young man's anxieties about romantic liaisons and professional ambition (or lack thereof.) Dexterously interweaving these narratives, however, Christopher Alden's production of Il Sogno di Scipione for Gotham Chamber Opera is a sleek, savvy, and quite funny take on this early Mozart opera. Appropriately, the lines between reality and fantasy are frequently blurred, and the most fantastic occurrences-- dead ancestors emerging through an Ikea wardrobe--could carry a weight of real psychological significance. The heroes of the heavenly realms are reimagined as a chorus of the down-and-out, forgotten men and women whose uncompromising courage offers an object lesson in how to treat Fortuna and Costanza. The latter, here, are two attractive and powerful women, strongly characterized. My one serious quibble with the production was its reliance for the basis of these characterizations on somewhat tired "bad girl"/"good girl" stereotypes for the women's use of their power and sexuality. Sigh. The third female personification of the evening, Licenza, was here a confident and good-natured, if slightly ditzy woman. Scipione is a rather hapless young man struggling to define his place in the world; it is a tribute to Alden's production that his eventual success carried Everyman resonance.

The Dream of Scipio (Alden): l-r Angelini, Biller, Munger
Photo (c) Gotham Chamber Opera/Richard Termine
The structure of the opera (score available through the Neue Mozart Ausgabe here) is dramatically lucid: Scipione finds himself in a waking dream, told to choose between two women, Fortuna and Costanza. Each of them in turn identifies herself and offers blandishments. Still irresolute, Scipione is introduced to heroes of ages past, including his own grandfather and father. It takes another aria from each of the women to finally bring Scipione to his choice. The surprising epilogue of the work has Licenza praising Mozart's patron(s) as a hero superior even to the storied general. Alden's production follows Mozart's example of adapting the libretto to the occasion, and directs Licenza's effusions towards the audience collectively patronizing the performance. The performance itself was of admirable quality. The chamber orchestra under Neal Goren played with verve throughout (the horns struggled, but soldiered on) and solid continuo was provided by harpsichord (Keun-A Lee) and cello (Sibylle Johner.)

Scipio and chorus (martinis provided by Fortuna)
Photo (c) Gotham Chamber Opera/Richard Termine
This performance provided my first hearing of this opera, and I was both astonished by the virtuosic challenges of Mozart's writing for the voice, and impressed by the cast's facility in handling them. Rachel Willis-Sørensen brought vocal and dramatic exuberance to the brief role of Licenza. Scipio's ancestors were both ably characterized and sung. Chad A. Johnson's elegant phrasing gave Emilio apt dignity. The stern and impassioned Publio of Arthur Espiritu (in Alden's vision, a maimed WWI soldier) was thoroughly compelling. He delivered his aria, "Se vuoi che te raccolgano," with fierce vigor, and gave a moving portrayal of Scipione's feared and loving forebear. (He also exhibited admirable comic timing in his handling of a floor lamp, which would take a long time to explain.) Marie-Eve Munger made me jealous of the solidity of her yoga poses, and sang Costanza with smooth, clean phrasing. Her sound could be edgy at the top of her range, but she coped well with the role's considerable demands. The splendid confidence of "Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio" was thoroughly credible as winning Scipione over. As her rival, Susannah Biller displayed a warm and flexible instrument, which she wielded with considerable panache. The fiery and expressively colored coloratura of "Lieve sono al par di vento" was dispatched simultaneously with sartorial metamorphoses, and she delivered "A chi serena io miro" while mixing fatal martinis. The object of all this persuasion was the Scipione of Michele Angelini. He was announced as getting over a sinus infection, but still sang with remarkable agility and power. Scipione's opening aria, "Risolver non osa confusa," is a concoction of runs and trills remarkable for its audacity, but Angelini brought it off with apparent confidence. His characterization of Scipione's journey towards self-confidence was nicely done, and his "Dì che sei l'arbitra" handled as a transformative moment. The buoyant spirit of the final chorus was not only communicated to the audience, but shared by them.


  1. "The same might be said of a young man's anxieties about romantic liaisons and professional ambition (or lack thereof.)": if only this weren't the subject of, I'm sure, a dozen recent rom-coms.

    Also: ugh, gender performance of the ladies; yay, vocal ornamentation.

    1. Indeed. I'm inclined to be more favorable to Alden than to the rom-coms (what is one to do with female personifications?) but my entry level of caring about slackerish young men is about nil. Still, equal opportunity coloratura.


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