Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Mozart’s “Goose of Cairo” nicely cooked and served at Days Bay Opera.

By , 08/12/2013

Opera in a Days Bay Garden presents:

L’Oca del Cairo – Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (edited by Michael Vinten)

English libretto by Michael Vinten

Producer: Rhona Fraser

Director: Sara Brodie

Cast: Roger Wilson (Don Pippo)

Rhona Fraser (Donna Pantea, his estranged wife)

Barbara Graham (Celidora, their daughter, betrothed to Biondello)

Christie Cook (Lavina, betrothed to Calandrino)

Imogen Thirlwall (Auretta, maidservant and sweetheart of Chichibio)

Christian Thurston (Chichibio, manservant and sweetheart of Anetta)

Andrew Grenon (Calandrino, betrothed to Lavina)

Oliver Sewell (Biondello, betrothed to Celidora)

John Bremford (Count Lionetto, friend to Don Pippo – non-singing part)

Chorus: Clarissa Dunn / Sheridan Williams / William McElwee / Howard McGuire

Orchestra of Opera in a Days Bay Garden: Leader – Anne Loeser / Continuo – Richard Mapp

Conductor: Michael Vinten

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Sunday 8th December, 2013

Now here’s a diverting sidelight involving Mozart as an opera composer, one that will come as a complete surprise to some people, as it did to me. Thanks to the enterprise, vision, industry and sheer tenacity of conductor (and scholar and musicologist) Michael Vinten, light has been shed on some of the esteemed Wolfgang’s lesser-known operatic workings, to whit at least two unfinished operatic projects and certain other fragments from the master’s compositional workshop.

Mozart’s unfinished opera L’oca del Cairo (The Goose of Cairo) which he began in July 1783, is duly included in the Köchel Catalogue of the composer’s works as K.422. Shortly afterwards, in that same year, another operatic project was begun by the composer, one also destined to remain unfinished. This was Lo sposo deluso (The Deluded Bridegroom) catalogued as K.430. Mozart abandoned both for a number of reasons, the most likely scenario being that (a) he was displeased with the libretto of each work, and (b) he jumped at the chance when it came, to work instead with the poet Lorenzo da Ponte, with whom he then produced one of the greatest of all operas “Le Nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro).

Given that Mozart actually expressed some satisfaction with the music he had written for “The Goose” (as opposed to his dissatisfaction with the libretto), it seemed a waste not to have the music re-employed in some shape or form. And, as there was another unfinished work by the composer in the same neck of the operatic woods, it meant that there was potentially a lot of good material waiting for a kind of rehabilitation.

Several attempts at reconstruction of the extant music from one or both works have already been made over the years, the first as long ago as 1867 in Paris. Of these, Michael Vinten’s seems to have gone the furthest towards creating a new work from what remains of the two unfinished operas plus various other Mozartean fragments from different sources written by the composer at around the same time. By comparison, a relatively recent (2002) British staging called “The Jewel Box” used the fragments of music but not the plots of the abandoned works.

To list all of the reconstructions and reinventions made by Vinten would turn this review into some kind of opera workshop inventory, albeit an impressive one. What he has done, in short, is to take the largely finished seven numbers from Act One of L’oca del Cairo, along with the five (mostly sketched-out) numbers from Lo sposo deluso (which however, do include a completed Overture, and one other finished item), and augment these with other pieces Mozart wrote for various projects at around the same time,  ending up with sufficient musical material for a newly-reconstituted work. As Vinten explains, the chosen time-frame gives the music a certain stylistic unity; and this was something which certainly fell gratefully upon the ear throughout the performance I was fortunate enough to hear.

When one discovers that, in Michael Vinten’s words, “of the 33 pieces used in the (reconstructed) opera, only 6 are totally completed by Mozart”, the full extent of these musical undertakings alone becomes apparent as well as a matter for great astonishment. But Vinten’s work didn’t stop there, as there were vexing questions posed by the two sets of libretti from the source-works, which also had to be addressed. This involved rewriting parts of the L’oca libretto so that it “fitted in” with aspects of the plot of Lo sposo. Throughout Vinten took pains to observe the conventions of the “known” Mozart operas, and paid special attention to social hierarchies of the kind found in other works by the composer.

As both Italian and a kind of “Viennese” dialect were used by the original librettists, Vinten decided to set the reconstruction in English, thus helping to unifying the modern conception – he also rewrote the recitatives, apart from one passage which appeared to have been written by Mozart himself. Apart from one or two modern colloquialisms which seemed somewhat cruder than Mozart might have allowed in public, given that, in private, he was excessively fond of crude scatological jokes and expressions (here, the word “bastard” seemed a bit excessive to me, as did the expression “giving the finger”) it mostly sounded to me like a thoroughly idiomatic opera buffa ought. All of of this seemed like the work of someone who had fully entered into the composer’s creative world, to the point where I’m certain it would have been the furthest thing from listeners’ minds during the performance to think “some of this is not Mozart’s work”.

So, how did it all come across at Canna House, Days Bay, this wondrous opera-rescue undertaking? Judging by the delight expressed in conversations I overheard both at the interval and afterwards, extremely well, indeed. Despite the weather shaking out its skirts in the wind occasionally, whipping away the occasional piece of stage-business paper, and at one point during the First Act showering scattered rain down onto singers, players and audience, causing a stoppage and a realignment of orchestral forces under shelter, there were no apparent major crises or glitches. A wonderful sense of ensemble between all participants prevailed throughout, one which, at this particular venue, readily spreads into and through the audience – and, of course, as seems to be customary, the occasional audience member is unexpectedly drawn into the action, to the delight (and relief) of the surrounding onlookers.

At Canna House, depending upon the particular production’s configuration, one can find oneself seated either down on the terraced lawn looking upwards at the higher terraces in front of the house, or in a vice-versa position, looking down onto the lower lawn. Here it was the former; and I had a seat which placed me handily to both stage action and the orchestra, quite a way over on my right. A couple of people I spoke to later said they were actually grateful for the rain, because it meant that the orchestra was reconvened for the restart in the middle of the stage action beneath the house veranda, and could be heard more clearly by those sitting on the left in the audience.

Director Sara Brodie’s placement of the opera’s action wasn’t at too specific a point of time, though the costumes had a reasonably “twentieth-century” feel about them, with accoutrements such as wind-up gramophones in attendance. I thought Act One in particular was splendidly staged, in fact, with properly comic comings-and-goings from principals and chorus members alike, as part of a “fluidity of irruption” that took its cues from the stream of wonderful music left by the composer and given new life by Michael Vinten. We particularly enjoyed detailings such as the desperate tennis ball-servings undertaken from the top of a tall tower by soprano Barbara Graham in the role of the unfortunate Celidora, daughter of the villain of the piece, the dastardly Don Pippo.

Though her tennis serves weren’t quite of the consistency of Serena Williams’, Barbara Graham made amends with a beautifully-characterised and excellently-sung portrayal of a wronged young woman, about to be forced by her father to forego her young lover and marry a rich elderly Count. Also held prisoner in the tower is the beautiful Lavina, sung by Christie Cook whom Don Pippo (bass Roger Wilson making the most of his villainous theatrical capacities!) hopes to marry. I liked Christie Cook’s warmly-wrought character and richly-produced tones, though she seemed over-taxed by some of the vocal runs, which didn’t sound altogether comfortable in places.

Roger Wilson’s splendid vocal focus served his character Don Pippo’s delusions of libido-grandeur to a tee, and, together with the two young women, made the most of the absurdities of the Second Act’s “dungeon scene trio”. At times there was scarcely enough room to turn around on the narrow terraces, let alone for the women to tie the unfortunate (and suddenly incapacitated) Don up with ribbon, with the help of the servant Chichibio (it can be gleaned from this that the plot is much too complex and absurd to be detailed). Act Two did have what seemed to me to be one or two congestion-like points in this respect, where the action needed I think to be more clearly focused – perhaps galvanized by great wonderment and astonishment at the Goose’s arrival, for example – before being properly “bumped on” for continuity’s sake.

All the characterizations undertaken by the singers were of a similarly engaging quality of focus and purpose. As the maidservant Auretta, Imogen Thirlwall was an absolute delight, voice production and stage movement so spontaneously “theatrical” in overall impulse one felt in complete and more-or-less instant accord with the character. Her worldly, Despina-like attitudes had a beautifully natural contrivance, much to the simultaneously-expressed joy and sorrow of her “often-behind-the-eight-ball” paramour, Chichibo, played with an engaging mix of wonderment and determination by Christian Thurston, holding on through thick and thin to the idea that steadfastness will come to be rewarded with love.

The two other young couples also had interesting differentiations, alluded to by Michael Vinten, what he called the mezzo carattere couple (Lavina and Calandrino) making a kind of foil for the seria twosome (Celidora and Biondello). According to Vinten this is what Mozart asked for from his librettist but didn’t get, at least to the extent that he wanted. Both Christie Cook as Lavina and Andrew Grenon as Calandrino had enough theatrical “presence” to establish strongly-etched, somewhat mock-serious characters, each thereby making up for a certain lack of vocal agility (Lavina) and weight of tone (Calandrino).

From both Barbara Graham (Celidora) and Oliver Sewell (Biondello) came show-stopping moments of vocal splendor – Celidora’s wonderful top-of-the-tower-captive aria, beautifully supported by a melting oboe solo and resplendent strings, was spectacularly delivered by Barbara Graham, leading then into some swinging duetting with Christie Cook’s Lavina, complete with phonograph-inspired flapper-dance movements. Some even more beautiful duetting from these two came at the beginning of the Act Two “dungeon” scene, the music almost Cosi-like in its loveliness, in places.

As for Oliver Sewell’s strenuously heroic Biondello, it was engaging boys-to-the-rescue stuff right from the start, complete with portable catapult and armies of plastic toy soldiers, all quite irresistible! And at the beginning of the Second Act he poured out his heart to the audience at his love-lorn plight before personalizing the plea with a hapless female audience member in the front row, who, however, gave as warm a response to his predicament as the occasion demanded!

It fell to the character of Biondello to assume the disguise of the eponymous Goose later in the act, a process initiated by none other than the estranged and supposedly banished wife of Don Pippo, the still-redoubtable Donna Pantea. Making her first appearance towards the end of the first Act, Rhona Fraser looked formidably resplendent in her pilot’s uniform, and bestrode the stage like an avenging angel, with a view to rescuing her daughter, Celidora, from her own father’s machinations. I thought the cast and energy of her recitative and aria uncannily anticipated something of the character of Leonore in Fidelio, such was the strength of her resolve and the focus of her singing.

Only at the point of reappearance of Donna Pantea disguised as the “Egyptian Dancer” and bringing with her the so-called “Goose” did I feel the staging lose something of what ought to have been its full dramatic punch, however parodic and ridiculous the sequence might have appeared. As I’ve already mooted in this review, ought the goose to have been made more of an object of mock wonderment and ritualized stupefaction on the part of those “in the know”, as much as with the hapless Don Pippo? Carefully though Michael Vinten crafted the sequences, I thought some kind of increased intensification in one or two places would drive the action forward where it seemed to sag ever so slightly, something that wasn’t ever apparent during the first Act.

With so much high-class and high-spirited fun already to be had from the proceedings, it seems churlish to criticize – it’s a small point. I must, before closing, mention the sterling efforts of the 4-part chorus, veritable jacks-of-all-trades in the hurly-burly of the action, the ebb and flow of their presence nicely directed by Sara Brodie. Steadfast, too, were the efforts of the off-stage/on-stage orchestra, constantly fulfilling Michael Vinten’s requirements for energized rhythms and singing lines, and supporting the singers to the hilt. Though ensemble wasn’t spit-and-polish perfect at all times, singers, conductor and players had a plasticity to their rhythms and phrasings that meant that things never came seriously adrift.

Very great credit to producer Rhona Fraser and director Sara Brodie, and all others concerned with bringing to fruition Michael Vinten’s (and something of Mozart’s) visions of musical and theatrical delight for our great pleasure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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