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Two New Comic Operas [Bridge 9299A/B]
27 Aug 2011

Two one-act comic operas from New York Festival of Song

The New York Festival of Song, created and run by Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, dedicates itself to what one might call “American lieder” — art songs by top American composers, classic Broadway, and operatic numbers.

John Musto: Bastianello & William Bolcom: Lucrezia

Lisa Vroman, soprano; Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Paul Appleby, tenor; Patrick Mason, baritone; Matthew Boehler, bass; Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, piano. New York Festival of Song.

Bridge 9299A/B [2CDs]

$39.99  Click to buy

In 2008 the festival branched out to present two one-act comic operas. The two librettos by Mark Campbell center on domestic love. In Bastianello, a new groom leaves his wedding after his wife displeases him, and through a series of encounters with other couples, learns that in a marriage, one must learn to forgive others’ faults. Lucrezia finds the title character married to an older man, and seduced by one Lorenzo, but it is Lorenzo who finds at the end that it is he himself who has been seduced.

Campbell writes some exceedingly clever lines, which sometimes zing and sometimes — don’t zing. The actual plot shenanigans tend to be rather cumbersome, so Campbell relies often on the unexpected rhyme to prompt a giggle —

“In my heart these feelings aren’t foreign.
To end this fight/We’ll do what’s right
And flip a florin.”

That “florin” gives a taste of the rather dated genre here — if the copyright for these libretti were 1908 instead of 2008, only the occasional anachronism would be alarming. But Campbell does have some lines less musty and more funny:

“Is the sex cold? Is it distant? That’s a laugh. Try ‘non-existent.’”

All the funny lines imaginable, however, wouldn’t deepen the characterization or supply the missing narrative interest. “Clever” can only go so far in maintaining interest in a story and characters, even in one act operas. The composers had their work cut out for them. William Bolcom’s music for Lucrezia fares best, possibly because the libretto he scored is less segregated into scenes. Bolcom is able to keep up a constant flow of fairly attractive musical invention, shifting subtly from one mood to another. His familiar mélange of ragtime, tango and faux-Gershwin works well for the story. Blier and Barrett at the pianos certainly play with rhythmic flair.

John Musto’s idiom for Bastianello is not radically different from Bolcom’s, but drier melodies and less variety of tempo makes this shorter opera feel as long as Lucrezia. The five singers seem to be enjoying themselves greatly, at any rate, and seen live they surely made a fine impression. Paul Appleby has a supple tenor voice, perfect for “male ingénue” parts. Matt Boehler and Patrick Mason take on the male “character voice” parts and mug in ways appropriate to the settings. Sasha Cooke captures the sly scheming of Lucrezia very well, and she and Lisa Vroman skillfully take on multiple roles in Bastianello.

Sondheim-aficionados and fans of the type of well-trained vocalism on exhibit here will find this Bridge recording enjoyable enough. It may not represent the ideal calling-card for the New York Festival of Song, however. Fortunately, that institution seems to be enough of an established success that a calling card — as antiquated a concept as much of the libretti’s dramaturgy — should prove superfluous.

Chris Mullins

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