New `Volpone' is a rhyming delight

Renaissance setting for all-too-timeless comic failings

MusicReview

March 12, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Where is virtue? Where is good? Why don't people behave as they should?"

The oh-so-sincere character who raises those perfectly reasonable questions in the new opera Volpone never does get an answer. You won't either, but you'll probably be too busy chuckling to care.

Volpone, "unfaithfully based on the eponymous comedy by Ben Jonson," bounded onto the cozy stage at the Barns of Wolf Trap Wednesday night with a caffeinated score by John Musto and a rhyme-happy libretto by Mark Campbell. This first-ever opera commission by the Wolf Trap Foundation is likely to enjoy wide success.

At a time when American operas tend to be based on current events or classic American lit, a 1606 British play about Renaissance Venetians makes a pretty novel choice. Not that the result is remote for contemporary audiences. An opera about betraying anything and anyone, cheating people out of money and dreams, putting self-gratification above all else -- like that doesn't ring a bell or two.

The plot concerns the gold-hungry, vulpine Volpone, who with the help of his clever servant Mosca, feigns a fatal illness so he can bilk several unsavory characters, each one expecting to become his sole heir. Continual table-turning leaves no ego unscathed. Mosca even ends up master for a day, only to get one last kick on his uniquely birth-marked posterior. In Jonson's original, Volpone ends up hammered by the law; the opera happily lets him off easy.

Campbell's colorful and clever text is almost Sondheim-worthy in its wordplay (some of it a wee bit bawdy). Rossini would have enjoyed setting this libretto.

Musto aims for something like Rossini's rhythmic momentum; the score rarely stops for breath. His tonal style falls pleasantly (if not indelibly) on the ears, even when loaded with piquant spice. He sets words naturally, but all the orchestral activity underneath them can get a little wearying. The prevalence of rhymed lines often leads the composer into Gilbert and Sullivan patterns that sound a little forced (two courtroom scenes can't help but suggest Trial by Jury).

The few extended bursts of lyricism -- notably an aria for Mosca's mother, Erminella, and a charming, sleigh bell-driven Entr'acte that sounds like it dropped in from another opera -- register nicely. So does the composer's own humor. He adds amusing instrumental underlining for any character's double-take; Volpone's pretend death comes with an inside joke -- the chord that signals Mimi's demise in Puccini's La Boheme.

The cast responded to Leon Major's snappy direction with a tightly honed, truly ensemble performance on Wednesday. They also made the most of Erhard Rom's simple, action-friendly set and David O. Roberts' era-roaming costumes.

Joshua Winograde, sporting wolfish eyebrows and mane, could have used a little more tonal coloring, but brought many a dynamic flourish to the title role. With sunglasses and a wristwatch accenting his otherwise Renaissance garb, Joseph Kaiser's sturdy, warm sound and superb articulation reinforced Mosca as the opera's centrifugal force. Adriana Zabala, in a fab 1920s gown, put an elegant spin, vocally and personally, on the role of Erminella.

Vibrant-voiced Ross Hauck proved ideal as the Venetian Dudley Do-Right, Bonario. Ryan Taylor (Votore), Wendy Hill (Corvina), Jason Ferrante (Cornaccio) and Sarah Wolfson (Celia) filled out their music and their characters admirably. Michael Barrett conducted with crisp authority. Puny-sounding strings took some of the bloom off the orchestration, but not the evening.

Volpone

Where: The Barns of Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, Va.

When: 8 tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $54

Call: 703-218-6500 (or visit www.wolftrap.org)

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