The curtain opened on white shag and a small black and white TV displaying a snowy noise pattern in a toppled apartment. Stage left there were two stacked mattresses and three sets of bare feet sticking through a sheet that wasn't long enough to cover them. Even during the overture we were in a dream. A sexy dream.
In this young and vibrant production by Gotham Chamber Opera directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Neal Goren, Scipione's dream began in bed with two beautiful women; Fortuna and Constanza. It turned to a nightmare with his almost immediate realization that he needed to choose between them.
Written at age 16, Il sogno di Scipione was the 8th of 22 operas by Mozart, depending on how you classify and count the works. It has seldom been presented in live performance but we have reason for hope that Gotham has helped to change that fact. This is the second time the company has produced Il Sogno di Scipione. The opera marked a trajectory for this company when it was the very first opera that it produced; an occasion which was also the American premiere of the work. This occasion marked the 10th anniversary of the company.
Described by Mozart as a "dramatic serenade," the work must be presented continuously and lasts just under two hours. The challenges for staging the work are legendary; there are ten solo arias and no duets, trios, or ensembles of any kind save two interjections by a chorus. Each aria is as complex as a concerto movement and last 7 to 8 minutes. Each aria includes mind-bending coloratura and presents extremes of register that imagines singers to be instruments of the orchestra with keys and values.
This amazing cast was up to the vocal challenges. They sang the notes that were on the page, and many that were not; they added extra figures and ornaments in appropriate places. All of them took extended cadenzas as opportunities to unleash relevant and tasty but nonetheless fearsome vocal pyrotechnics, and all of them could act. Their collected performance was a testament to the high level of acting and role engagement that is possible with this new generation of young professional opera singers.
During Fortuna's first aria "Lieve sono al par del vento," the essential character of each of the two central women was developed. Susannah Biller sang the aria in a blaze of C major with both power and clarity as she also dressed and undressed several times. She expressed her character's capriciousness through assuming the personality of each costume in a sequence that would have been challenging even without singing. Biller made confidences audible.
While Biller was in motion, Constanza, played by Marie-Ève Munger was quietly moving through yoga postures on the opposite side of the stage. Constanza's mystical character in this production synced with the magical proficiency of Munger's awesome technique. She sang "Ciglio che al sol si gira" accurately in a breathtakingly fast tempo without losing any of its tenderness. "Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio" was given with a power and drama that showed that this girl next door had a kicking engine under the hood.
Tenor Michele Angelini as Scipione was most impressive in his final aria "Di' che se l'arbitra del mondo intero," where he sang some of the trickiest divisions in the entire opera and several quick high C's while tying a double windsor knot in his tie (without a mirror). When fully dressed he grabbed his briefcase, used it to break a hole through a wall, and exited. This corporate transformation ended the dream sequence without ruining it with completely rational explanation.
Tenor Arthur Espiritu as Publio, tenor Chad A. Johnson as Emilio, and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Licenza filled out the rest of this first-rate cast.
I was only disappointed in the way that the second aria for Fortuna was staged. Dressed as a cocktail waitress, Fortuna scowled as she prepared drinks. Though the lyrics of this aria are menacing, the music is a clear reference to Constanza's first aria. The two arias share the same key, the same scoring for strings only, and even framing pitches and contour shapes. It is as if Mozart wanted to show that Fortuna had elements of Constanza within her, as Constanza has elements of Fortuna in the contrasting aria that follows it. Mozart seems to say that even the women of our dreams are more complex than they seem at first.
In the large-scale design of the design of the opera each of the main characters gets two arias that break in slightly shifted mirror symmetry on either side of Emilio's aria. Emilio, because he is at the center gets only one, and he is mirrored at the close by Licenza's aria. The order that Constanza and Fortuna sing arias in this second half is shifted from the pattern that would have happened naturally. The shift highlights the idea that Fortuna realized she was losing ground to Constanza and needed to show that she had tenderness within her as well; even if it was only in music and not in the libretto. The cocktail Fortuna did not serve any difference in personality and that made the entire second half feel that much less complex, less strange, and more predictable. At any rate it was certainly too unchanging for this mistress of the capricious.
"Scipio is not the subject, we are," sang Willis-Sørensen as Licenza during the epilogue finale of the work. She made eye contact with everyone in the audience and explained that Scipio's name "is a disguise for the respect I feel for you." She acknowledged the musicians in the pit and the first-rate continuo players. Mozart, master of last minute transformations, reconciliations, and forgiveness, scored appreciation into this opera and this production allowed it to be shared.
Individual members of the chorus each lifted enough of the curtain to sing the final choral celebration as Willis-Sørensen gathered her shopping bags, returned the apartment to its former toppled condition and disappeared.
Like any good dream this production asked more questions than it answered. And it gave us a dream-cast to ask them. It was a significant achievement by this relevant and fascinating opera company.