The Inspector, John Musto’s second opera and his fourth collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell, was originally performed at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts on April 27, 2011. The Boston Lyric Opera is this work’s second airing, and it is said to be a revised version of the opera (although I cannot vouch for what are the revisions). Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, The Inspector is sung in English. The stage is set in Santa Schifezza, Sicily. The story is based on Nikolai Gogol’s satiric work, The Government Inspector (1836). Musto writes“Imperial Russia didn’t suggest a musical language in which I felt comfortable: I asked for a change of venue, and he [Campbell] settled on 1930s Fascist Italy. . . . Musically, it’s a veritable playground for me to toss around tunes I learned growing up: tarantella, barcarolla, siciliana; the fascist anthem makes an appearance in the third scene (it’s still illegal to play it in Italy), musical snippets from the state song of Alaska, ‘America the Beautiful,’ Julius LaRosa and even the singing nun.” As Musto makes clear, this work draws on a wide variety of sources ― and so is very much within the tradition of comic opera.
The work also draws on traditions of Broadway musicals and alludes (in plot, in writing, in performance) to Sweeney Todd and Evita, among other works. Less obviously, it also draws on the figure of the parasitus from ancient Roman comedy, a constantly hungry hanger-on, a parasite whose appetite is the butt of jokes. The libretto includes political sloganeering with a particularly American slant and includes what certainly sound like direct quotes from our prior Presidential administration (with nods to sound-bites of Nixon at one point as well). The Inspector is amusing and enjoyable. I regret the trade in stock stereotypes of Sicily, but I have spent enough time there to be especially sensitive on this point and accept that most comedy comes at someone’s expense and the reproduction of ill-defined, received ideas. After much, probably too much, reflection, I am not sure if The Inspector sufficiently marshals all the protean elements brought into this work to create a lasting masterpiece of comic opera — but then we cannot all be Offenbachs.
It is structured into five scenes and two acts, with intermission. The first scene is in the piazza of Santa Schifezza on the eve of Municipal Mayoral Day. Malacorpa (Dorothy Byrne, mezzo-soprano), the town’s health officer, rehearses a song in praise of the town and its mayor between drags on a cigarette, her constant prop (along with a filled ashtray). The Mayor (Jake Gardner, bass-baritone) arrives, embodying the type of the charming yet corrupt politician, from ever-present cigar to generous, if dubious, largesse and only a dim awareness of ethics. Bobachino (Nicole Rodin, mezzo-soprano) and Bobachina (Molly Paige Crookedacre), bumbling and dim-witted if sweet and sincere twins who are the town post officers, arrive in a flurry to inform the Mayor of an impending visit from an incognito inspector from Rome representing the new governmental regime. The Mayor’s Board convenes to consider this news. We meet: Padre Ruffiano (Julius Ahn, tenor), the incarnation of Church excess; Bombalina, the head of education (Michelle Trainor), a peroxided paragon of verbal infelicities and wasted mind; and Chief of Police Adolfo, (David Cushing), a slow and sadistic enforcer of law and order. All agree to present the town and its affairs as being “On the Up and Up”, when the postal officers arrive to announce the presence in town of a gentleman from Rome with his valet, dressed in rags. Convinced this is the Inspector, the Mayor goes to welcome the visitor in proper local style. Add in the Mayoress, Sarelda (Victoria Livengood, mezzo-soprano), crookedly ambitious and a perfect match to the Mayor, and their daughter Beatrice (Meredith Hansen, soprano), an intelligent woman of upstanding morals and Marxist politics saddled with such miscreants as parents and desperate to flee Santa Schifezza. Somehow the presence of “Sister Angelica” (Lee Clarke in an almost-mute trouser role), a new nun in town looking to start an orphanage, raises no suspicion; the Mayor takes on the Sister as shadow and amanuensis, charged with writing a vanity book of his benevolent dictatorship over the town. The second scene introduces the visitors from Rome, Tancredi (Neal Ferreira, tenor), the younger character who arrived in town as valet, and Cosimo (David Kravitz, baritone), an older yet cultured man reduced to penury. Tancredi, the Mayor decides, must be the Inspector, and Cosimo his valet. From this mistaken identity unfolds the remainder of the plot. The third scene takes us to Villa Corrizone, the Mayor’s home, where a newly fed and clothed Tancredi and Cosimo cavort with the Mayor’s family, all of whom save Beatrice strive to curry favor with these representatives of the new regime. Act II opens on scene four as Sarelda and the Mayor work to convince Beatrice to be “friendly” to Tancredi; Beatrice is more interested in uncovering his real identity, and she succeeds, then uses Tancredi and Cosimo to effect her escape from Santa Schifezza – ostensibly towards Rome in the Mayor’s car. Scene five returns us to the Piazza for the festivities of Municipal Mayoral Day, when the Mayor announces his departure for an important post in Rome and the new regime. At the end the true inspector is unveiled.
Musto’s score is jazz-inflected and rhythmically complex, yet also tuneful and catchy. Themes grow and change, working to craft a unified whole of the disparate influences funneling into this work, even as some allusions always escape the bounds of this opera. Byrne as Malacorpa brought comic timing and sensibility to her role. Gardner as Mayor took his role more in the tradition of Broadway or singspiel, with much of the recitative spoken rather than sung (and perhaps it is scored this way; I have not seen the printed music so cannot say). Livengood as Sarelda, the Mayoress, sang with all the self-importance of a diva; she gave an exciting reading of the shoe song (more of a Broadway style than operatic). Bombalina aimed for operatic self-importance and Trainor, singing this role, effectively portrayed her character’s limitations and inflated ego; the same could be said for Cushing in the more limited role of Adolfo. Ahn well captured the sleaze in Padre Ruffiano. Ferreira as Tancredi and Kravitz as Cosimo were especially effective in their second duet (“good-bye”) and Ferreira rose to challenges of the boasting drunken aria in scene three and the duet with Beatrice in scene four. The real vocal star of this production is Meredith Hansen singing Beatrice, a serious character (with corresponding writing) in a comic work. Hansen demonstrated her mastery of both serious and comic genres in this role.
David Angus conducted the orchestra and singers well and kept the ensemble together throughout. The opera continues through next weekend; a Wolf Trap Records recording of the Wolf Trap production will be released this summer.