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Mary Wilson as Queen Isabella (Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)
22 Jun 2008

A rare treasure in Saint Louis. . .

Pink flamingos, sheep on wheels, and a queen crowned with giant antlers all inhabit the zany world of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s Una cosa rara, where the artificial 18th century pastoral commingles with cutesy country colors and 1950s yard art.

Vincent Martín y Soler: Una cosa rara o sia Belleza ed onestá [A Rare Treasure, or Beauty and Honesty]

Queen Isabella (Mary Wilson); Prince Giovanni (Alek Schrader); Corrado, (Paul Appleby); Lilla (Maureen McKay); Lubino (Keith Phares); Tita (Matthew Burns); Ghita (Kiera Duffy); Lisargo (David Kravitz). Musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony, conducted by Corrado Rovaris. Directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, with sets by David Zinn and costumes by Clint Ramos.

Above: Mary Wilson as Queen Isabella
All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis


Although Cosa rara’s eponymous rare treasure concerns the honesty of a beautiful woman, Opera Theatre surely enjoyed the play on words in presenting this rarely performed but once-treasured opera. The company has successfully contextualized Mozart in its last few seasons by presenting works of his contemporaries, including Grétry’s Beauty and the Beast (1771) and Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage (1792). Vincent Martín y Soler’s opera continues this trend, since nearly everything about Una cosa rara reminds us of its more familiar Mozartian brethren.

Born in Spain two years before Mozart, Martín lacked his contemporary’s astonishing precocity, though by his early twenties he had composed comic operas for many important Italian towns. He moved to Vienna in 1785, four years after Mozart’s own arrival. The following year each man composed an opera for Emperor Joseph II’s Italian theater. Mozart inaugurated his partnership with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, culminating in Le nozze di Figaro. Martín likewise collaborated with da Ponte on his comic opera, Una cosa rara. Figaro’s modest success in May 1786 was overshadowed by Una cosa rara’s triumphant debut eight months later. In October 1787 Martín penned a follow-up hit with the immensely popular pastoral work L’arbore di Diana. Less than a month later, Don Giovanni opened in Prague. In it, Mozart acknowledged his peer’s popularity by quoting a tune from Cosa rara during the Act II dinner entertainment. These textual and musical links to Mozart are not just historical happenstance, but structurally important in Cosa rara. Da Ponte’s influence weighs heavily, with both the plot and the characters echoing Figaro and Così fan tutte. Although Martín’s musical style lacks the spice of Mozart at his best, Cosa rara is perfectly passable as good 18th century opera. For us just as for the Viennese, Martín’s pleasant pastoral ditties digest easily.

Stage director Chas Rader-Schieber conceived Opera Theatre’s Cosa rara as a farcical world of warped whimsy, albeit with a rather friendly touch. His vision was amply fulfilled by the aforementioned sheep on wheels, pink flamingos, garden gnomes, etc. These flamingos extended beyond mere props, even decorating the outdoor gardens at intermission. The set and the costumes seemed to get as much or more attention than the music, since each character’s entrance was accompanied by applause or laughter. The costumes continued to get more and more outlandish, culminating in the high (or low?) point of the Queen’s Act II hunting outfit, which featured giant pink glittering antlers affixed to her head. It was all extremely silly, but the cast (and audience by extension) seemed to have a ball.

Although the visual spectacle of this production dominated at times, the vocal performances were solid as well, with some truly excellent moments. Soprano Mary Wilson was both impressive and endearing as the dotty Queen of Spain, and she certainly seemed to enjoy her silly onstage shenanigans. She wowed the audience during many of her numbers, particularly the virtuoso rondo in Act II. A great example of Cosa rara’s more elevated musical style for the noble characters, Wilson nailed the difficult technical passages in this aria with finesse and good taste in ornamentation. Her son the Prince was interpreted in a delightfully hammy manner by tenor Alek Schrader. With his over the top pink and black sequined costume, his platinum blond wig a cross between Madame Pompadour and rockabilly à la Jerry Lee Lewis, Schrader titillated the audience throughout. His difficult Act II recitative and aria was very nicely sung, although perhaps one might desire a little more power in the finish. Corrado’s part, sung by Paul Appleby, was much less substantial, with only short solos.

Cosa_rara02.pngMaureen McKay and Alek Schrader

On to the peasants! Soprano Maureen McKay was absolutely delightful as the ingenuous shepherdess Lilla, and had the audience in stitches from her first entrance, running frantically onto stage and literally throwing herself at the Queen’s feet. Though this particular performance had a few isolated strained notes in the higher register, McKay has a lovely clear voice, and her perfect acting really helped make the production. Lilla’s lover Lubino, a rather dimwitted impetuous shepherd, was well-served by Keith Phares’ rich baritone voice and excellent diction. Phares particularly amused the audience with his ridiculous Act I parody of a vengeance aria. If Lilla and Lubino represent the perfect shepherd couple, their counterparts Ghita and Tita offer (still more) comic relief. Ghita was saucily interpreted by soprano Kiera Duffy, while Matthew Burns took the bass role of Tita. The two bickered impressively, interspersing their arguments with hilarious make-out sessions. Both singers had some of the more difficult patter singing in Cosa rara, which they managed with aplomb. Matthew Burns’s voice was especially impressive, as was his stellar diction.

The orchestra members, drawn from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, were well conducted by Corrado Rovaris. They performed the 18th century style cleanly and followed the singers sensitively, with the only minor shortcoming being the occasional trampling of forte-piano alternations.

Hugh Macdonald’s new English singing translation certainly added to the hilarity of it all. He clearly reveled in fashioning silly rhymes such as mooning and spooning and swooning, and even alerted the audience to the arrival of the melody famously quoted in Don Giovanni. His new translation played a major role in the successfully slapstick comedy of this Cosa rara, cramming in jokes, puns, wink-wink references, and general silliness by the handful.

Opera Theatre’s rare treasure in this performance seemed to lie not in the revitalization of some forgotten masterpiece, but in presenting an opera completely without pretensions, a perfectly frivolous summer treat.

Erin Brooks © 2008

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