- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

John Musto’s “Volpone,” with a libretto by lyricist Mark Campbell, opened to an enthusiastic audience at the Barns at Wolf Trap Tuesday. Directed by Leon Major, this world-premiere opera was also the Wolf Trap Opera’s first-ever commissioned work.

Based on Ben Jonson’s Elizabethan-era satirical comedy, this “Volpone” trims the play to its essential juicy bits, juggles some characters and adds another to create myriad opportunities for vocal blending. Librettist Campbell spruced up the dialogue with rhyming poetry to accentuate the jokes and puns. Costume designer David O. Roberts’ mix of Elizabethan dress and animal riffs and set designer Erhard Rom’s ingenious mechanical backdrops helped the production maintain its lively pace.

Mr. Musto’s spare, somewhat string-centric orchestration allowed the singers to take center stage without having to wage war against late-Romantic-era brass choirs. His vocal music was more verismo than tune-filled, but the balance was pleasant, with the vocal blends at times extremely complex.

Mr. Musto’s compositional style creates music that is at once rapid and dense. While not unaware of modernist challenges to the established order, he is also revolutionary for contemporary American opera. Turning his back on the 20th century’s tradition of tormenting audiences with cacophony, he instead offers something that’s smart and fun, making playful jabs at blasts from the past such as Gregorian chant, dance-hall music, Gilbert and Sullivan, Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and a few fugal hat-tips to Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Wolf Trap Opera has assembled an excellent cast of talented local singers and recent Wolf Trap alums to fill the opera’s numerous roles. Chief among them is Volpone’s devious manservant, Mosca (“the fly”), sung to witty perfection by tenor Joseph Kaiser. Mr. Kaiser has a big, robust tenor, particularly evident in his second-act aria “The Fly,” in which he brags about his talents in a manner reminiscent of Rossini’s famous Figaro.

As his boss, the foxy Volpone, wildly coifed bass-baritone Joshua Winograde proved as rich in voice as he is in comic talent. His phrasing and enunciation were masterful, even as he faked his apparent demise throughout the first act. His frequent “Genoa” duets with Mosca throughout the work gave thematic unity to the evening.

As classy Madame Erminella, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala was authoritative, yet affecting. Her opening aria, which wound sinuously around a lullaby tune that proves crucial in the finale, probably was the best set piece in the opera, a jewellike musical moment defining her character as well as this opera’s break with the gods of atonalism.

Tenor Ross Hauck and soprano Sarah Wolfson as unfortunate straight arrows Bonario and Celia lent some lyrical moments to the opera, with their love duet providing a needed antidote to the evening’s overall canvas of greed.

The supporting character roles were exquisitely sung, including Voltore (baritone Ryan Taylor), Corvina (soprano Wendy Hill) and Cornaccio (tenor Jason Ferrante). The entire cast sang brilliantly in Mr. Musto’s many complex ensembles. The orchestra, under the baton of Michael Barret, played sparingly and well, backing up the singers without wiping out their vocal lines, crucial to an opera presented in English but without surtitles. However, the diction of Volpone’s servants (singers Mary Gresock, Karen Mercedes, and Eugene Galvin) could have been more distinct.

“Volpone” is a small, chamber-style comic opera that’s melodic, funny, fast-paced, and entertaining. Unlikely to be performed in huge opera houses, it could be just the thing for smaller companies looking to refresh their stale repertoire with something enjoyable and new.

***

WHAT: “Volpone,” by John Musto and Mark Campbell

WHO: The Wolf Trap Opera

WHEN: Tomorrow at 2 p.m.

WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna

PHONE: 703/938-2404

TICKETS: Visit the box office at the Barns from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday or call 703/218-6500.

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