Wolf Trap's 'Inspector' sparkles in gala debut

Musto's and Campbell's comic opera loaded with musical and political satire, Godfather-style. Photo: Wolf Trap

Vienna, VA (April 23, 2011) —The red carpet was out—literally—at the entrance to Wolf Trap’s Barns Wednesday evening, greeting patrons attending the world premiere production of John Musto’s and Mark Campbell’s new opera, The Inspector. Based on Nikolai Gogol’s classic political satire, “The Government Inspector,” and commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, the opening night performance sparkled with the wit and humor of Mr. Campbell’s puckish libretto and the almost Charles Ivesian musical trickery of Mr. Musto’s deliciously contemporary score.

As we detailed here earlier this week, Gogol’s classic has been adapted to 1930s Italy for the new opera, which certainly widened options for composer and librettist alike. Mr. Campbell’s frequently rhyming libretto is heavy on political satire with an Italian flavor spiced with Washington allusions. Mr. Musto’s music is characteristically American, with copious references to popular Italian tunes (including one you can’t really sing over there), the tricky rhythmic idioms of Leonard Bernstein, and even a touch of underhanded American patriotism.

Mayor Fazzobaldi (Robert Orth) and friends.

Mayor Fazzobaldi (Robert Orth) and friends.
(Credit: Wolf Trap.) L-R: Padre Ruffiano
(Javier Abreu), Malacorpa (Dorothy Byrne),
The Mayor, Agrippa (Angela Mannino), and
Adolfo (Matt Boehler). 

Gogol’s plot, even with Mr. Musto’s revisions, is startlingly Washingtonian. The Sicilian town of Santa Schifezza’s corrupt Mayor-for-Life Fazzobaldi (Robert Orth) and his cronies are horrified when they discover that a government inspector from the Mussolini regime is paying his town a visit. If their widespread criminal activities are uncovered, Hizzoner’s posh life and lavish taxpayer supported perks will likely be over for good. When Tancredi (Vale Rideout), an anti-government fugitive from Rome suddenly shows up with his pal Cosimo (William Sharp), the town assumes he’s the inspector and the fun—including an endless cascade of bribes—gets underway.

Things are made even more problematic by the decidedly uncooperative attitude of the Mayor’s daughter, Beatrice (an allusion to Dante, anyone?). A brittle, bookish skeptic, Beatrice (Anne-Carolyn Bird) who decides to take advantage of the confusion and escape the whole mess.

So, how good was this new opera? Perhaps it’s best to draw comparisons to Musto and Campbell’s previous Wolf Trap commission, Volpone. Based on Ben Jonson’s eponymous comedy, Volpone scored a hit here and nearly copped a Grammy in 2009 when Wolf Trap recorded a return staging of the work.

Volpone’s score seemed somewhat more modernist than that of The Inspector. Dramatically, Volpone’s supporting characters, a series of greedy, bumbling villains, were deftly characterized, and its slapstick humor built steadily to a highly satisfying climax.

The Inspector boasts some of these same elements. But Mr. Musto’s music somehow seems more broadly comic and a bit more genial this time around. En route, the composer pitches in an amusing and often startling array of musical references, including—out of nowhere—a snippet from Grieg’s “Anitra’s Dance, as well as plenty of wry references to Italian pop classics. Or at least strains that sound like Italian pop classics. There are a few unabashed romantic interludes and arias as well, a real pleasure in the world of modern opera where tunes still seem to be frowned upon, for the most part.

Mr. Campbell’s Inspector libretto is, if anything, even funnier than Volpone. The rhymes and jokes fly fast and thick, and there are plenty of recognizable zingers as well, as in a marvelous mini-scene where the Mayor protests he’s “not a crook,” just like a certain American denizen of the White House did, not so long ago. Not for nothing has Mr. Campbell named his fictional town “Santa Schifezza,” roughly translated as “Saint Rubbish”—or, actually, a little bit stronger than that.

Oddly, though, The Inspector’s supporting cast of rogues does not get quite as much to do, dramatically at least, as their counterparts in Volpone. The town’s Directress of Hospital and Cemetery Services, Malacorpa (Dorothy Byrne) does get plenty of early action as a wizened, chain-smoking, constantly hacking exemplar of the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do nanny-state style governing class. But the minxy faux-educationalist Agrippa (Angela Mannino) and the furtive priest Padre Ruffiano (Javier Abreu) get less attention. And the aptly-named Fascist cop Adolfo (Matt Boehler) gets precious little time in a role that would seem to need a little more heft, given the anti-dictator stance of the opera.

Beatrice and Tancredi.

Beatrice (Anne-Carolyn Bird) makes Tancredi
(Vale Rideout) an offer he can’t refuse.

On the other hand, more character work might have added unacceptable length to the opera whose first act indeed seemed to run just a trifle long. Nonetheless, economizing on material for the supporting cast ultimately provided more opportunities for the main players, and they took up the added challenge with considerable vigor.

As Mayor Fazzobaldi, baritone Robert Orth seemed to be having the time of his life, making the most of ample opportunities for mugging, preening, and hogging the stage—just like a real politician. His brusquely comic voice was perfect for the part and every one of his entrances enlivened the proceedings.

As his shrewish but equally ambitious wife, Sarelda, mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen had as much fun as Mr. Orth, if not more. Imperious and manipulative, Sarelda’s list of wants and desires never ends. But  whatever the case, we soon discover that her first love is shoes—as many as she can lay her lustful hands on. The result, naturally, is the opera’s best comic set piece, a sidesplittingly funny, rhyming aria-ode celebrating the glory of shoes. Old political hands will be instantly reminded of the Philippines’ costly onetime First Lady, Imelda Marcos who filled room after room of the Presidential Palace with shoes even as her people sank deeper into poverty.

Closer to home, scores of women in the audience recognized a bit of themselves in Larsen’s Sarelda as well, given the cascades of laughter that greeted this scene. Ms. Larsen’s comic talent, husky voice, and perfect diction all helped deliver the goods in this sensational scene.

Tenor Vale Rideout was a dashing Tancredi, the desperate fugitive who’s transformed into an honored “inspector” allegedly sent by Mussolini, ironically the very thug our anti-hero is fleeing from. Mr. Rideout deftly transforms his voice from thin and frightened to self-confident and arrogant, embodying the essence of this opera where so many people are desperately trying to be someone other than who they really are.

As Cosimo, Tancredi’s former teacher and now fugitive accomplice, baritone William Sharp is an intriguing blend of practical and bumbling. He gets a bit less to sing than the other major characters, but adds vocal heft to the various brief ensembles that pop up just about everywhere in this opera, which, via clever deployment of multiple voices, operates successfully without an actual chorus.

Some of the evening’s most elegant musical moments, however, belong to soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, whose characterization of Beatrice Fazzobaldi serves, if you will, the artistic and social conscience of her otherwise zany, amoral town. Snatched back to Sicily after a year of college where she learned—horrors!—to read books and discover socialism, Beatrice is bored, embittered and desperate to escape, ultimately finding an unwitting and unwilling ally in Tancredi.

Ms. Bird’s brief, determined aria near the end of the first act is unexpectedly moving, aided by Mr. Musto’s orchestration which slides effortlessly into a wistful, romantic interlude. As portrayed by Ms. Bird, Beatrice and her sheer determination offer at least a hint of hope that she—and by extension we—can leave corruption, politics, and even meddling parents behind as we light out for the territories and hope for a better world.

A brief hat tip is in order here for Andrea Shokery and Hilary Ginther as Bobachina and Bobachino, fraternal twins who run the Post Office—and read all the mail for the suspicious Mayor. Singing on top of each other all the time, the breathless twins swoop onstage when you least expect them. At which point they comment upon and sometimes initiate the action while stumbling over their words in a tumble of spoonerisms (swapped consonants) and malapropisms. They’re a bit like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, adding still another layer of comedy to an already funny production.

While we’re at it, yet another hat tip, this time to Bob Spates, Zoltan Racz, and Willy Clark. In an inventive instrumental touch by Mr. Musto, these musicians have been tapped as the players in a “stage band” that shows up for special political occasions. Playing the Mandolin, the accordion, and the tuba respectively, they’re an odd ensemble, reminding you of a romantic Italian restaurant and a Salvation Army band rolled into one. Yet somehow, even with the tuba, they lend a very Italian touch to the atmosphere.

The opera itself is directed efficiently and briskly by Leon Major. Glen Cortese directs a large (for the Barns) orchestra crisply, adding color when needed but always helping the singers to stay out in front.

Erhard Rom’s efficient, evocative sets made the most of the Barns’ shallow stage space, and David O. Roberts’ period costumes were elegant and understated.

The Inspector repeats one final time this Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m. This week’s performances are being recorded live, destined to be woven into Wolf Trap’s next opera CD. We’ll keep you posted on availability.

Musto’s and Campbell’s Volpone has scored a number of performances since its original Wolf Trap debut. Word is that The Inspector is scheduled to be performed in Boston next season. No one should find this surprising. In an era of crunched performing arts budgets, operas like Volpone and The Inspector could well prove to be an important future wave, blending contemporary sentiments and mores with strong story lines and accessible, yet surprisingly complex musical scoring.

In short, Musto and Campbell—and Wolf Trap—may finally have discovered a formula for creating small, approachable, appealing, high quality American operas finally capable of reaching the broader audience this genre needs to survive and prosper in the quiet desperation of 21st century that none of us really expected.

Rating: *** (3 Stars.)

The Inspector concludes its brief run on Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m. Ticket prices range from $32-72. For tickets, information, and directions, link to Wolf Trap’s main website, or visit The Inspector’s page here.

Trivia Questions:

In a pre-opening night talk, composer John Musto challenged the audience to find where he’d buried a snippet of “America the Beautiful” in his score. Spoiler Alert. Answer: in the orchestra, as Tancredi tells Beatrice of his plan to split for Brooklyn in Act II.

One for you: If you attend Sunday’s performance, see if you can figure out who the real Inspector is before all is revealed. (We’ll put the answer here after the performance is over.)

Corrections, Errata:

In our preview piece earlier this week, we misidentified the soloist portraying Sarelda as Luretta Bybee. The actual soloist, of course, is mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen. We’ve corrected the preview piece to reflect that.

During the course of a pre-performance talk, the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s current director, Kim Pensinger Whitman, cleared up a small organizational matter with regard to The Inspector. The “Wolf Trap Opera Company” is the name of the entity that serves as a training/proving ground for up-and-coming young opera singers who will, hopefully, be the stars of the future. It’s essentially a summer program that’s traditionally involved the full or partial staging of three complete operas each year in addition to several associated musical evenings meant to showcase the Company’s young talent in a recital environment.

The Inspector (and indeed, Volpone, which preceded it), was commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation. The current world premiere production employs professional singers (some of whom are numbered among Wolf Trap Opera alumni) and is under the auspices of the Wolf Trap Foundation itself. It’s easy to confuse the issue (as this writer has in the past), so hopefully this clears things up.

Read more of Terry’s work at “Curtain Up!” in the Communities at the Washington Times.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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