Tufts Opera Ensemble presented the world premiere of The Knave of Hearts, an opera in one act with libretto and music by Vartan Aghababian. The work is based on a 1925 play by Louise Saunders. Stage Director Carol Mastrodomenico explained in the program notes that this commission came about owing to the lack of “operatic repertoire appropriate for undergraduate students.” The opera was a delight, with playful staging, lively costumes, and lots of humor. The student performers seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much as the audience last night at Distler Performance Hall at the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University.
The setting is the Kingdom of Hearts, a vaguely “Alice In Wonderland” fantasy where the the royal court is choosing of the new queen who must bake raspberry tarts up to King Pompdebile’s (pomp-deh-buh-lee) standard or be banished. We come to learn that the candidate for queen, Lady Violetta, is not much of a cook, but the eponymous hero of the opera selflessly saves the day.
Aghababian uses a modern tonal language that embraces 20th-century polytonality as well as blues and pop. The music would shift into a sultry swing each time the seductive Ursula (Rachel Rubin) would strut her stuff for the king. Occasionally the Village Idiot (Noa Rosen) would continue singing after the rest of the chorus stopped, slipping in quotes of popular music including the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” The Stage Manager (Emma Daniels) did an impressive job navigating the melodies of a shifting tonal center that opened and closed the opera.
One other element that made The Knave of Hearts so satisfying was its opportunities for showcasing the talents of a large portion of the cast—something lacking in many operas performed at the undergraduate level. Each character’s distinct charm was flaunted at some point. Even somewhat minor characters were given a chance to display personalities and voices. The chemistry between the two pastry chefs, Blue Hose and Yellow Hose (Grace Oberhofer and Amelia Wellers), was astonishing and their choreography tightly executed. Lady Violetta’s (Suzanne Lis) passionate, Verismo-style delivery was striking and especially pleasing coming from a college-age singer. Her interaction with the Knave of Hearts (Juan Carlos Montemayor), confessing her inability to bake a delicious raspberry tart, was another highlight. The goofy mannerisms of King Pompdebile VIII (Daniel Pickar) translated to a lighthearted satire on aristocratic arrogance and outdated customs, adding to the opera’s attractiveness.
Music director and pianist Thomas Stumpf provided a dependable foundation over which the students could let loose a little. His piano playing accommodated much give and take.
Last night’s music, staging, costume, set, and lighting design really satisfied.