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Public Domain Composers Repurposed


Laugh- and grimace-inducing travesty, burlesque, and pastiche along with great singing and piquant period winds served to parody some not-entirely-imaginary West Wingnuts at a now-hip former temple to the second amendment in a quiet neighborhood Friday. The nuts will twist again on Saturday night at the Somerville Armory, when On Behalf of a Madman completes its run. Grand Harmonie accorded the public domain composers respect in sonorous execution and idiomatic period arranging (by Yoni Kahn) of Charles Ogilvie’s and Julia Mintzer’s selection of Haydn, Mozart, Donizetti, and Rossini arias and ensembles. The original librettists suffered no little mockery, distortion and gloss on their words, though some of the selections fit the moods of the moment to perfection without tampering.

The process of piecing together various arias in a patchwork or medley developed in the 17th century in response to rising demand for new operas Mary Ellen Brown tells us. An early 18th-century “satirical recipe” for making a pasticcio follows:

Pick out about a hundred Italian Airs from several Authors, good, or bad, it signifies nothing. Among these, make use of fifty-five, or fifty-six, of such as please your Fancy best, and Marshall’em in the manner you think most convenient. When this is done, you must employ a Poet to write some English words, the Airs of which are to be adapted to the Italian Musick. In the next place you must agree with some Composer to provide the Recitative … [in original] When this is done, you must make a Bargain with some Mungril Italian Poet to translate the Part of the English that is to be Perform’d in Italian; and then deliver it into the Hands of some Amanuensis, that understands Musick better than your self, to Transcribe the Score, and the Parts. (Price)

Note: This writer produced a rare example of the form a couple of years ago in a private performance. Il Pesceballo, by Francis James Child, James Russell Lowell and John Knowles Paine used music of “Maestro Rossibelli-Donimozarti” to tell the story of a Harvard student in straightened circumstances who could afford only one fishball.

Though there was no mistaking the aim of last night’s barbs, the satire stung far less than Saturday Night Live, and would cause discomfort only to the most determined apologists for the current regime. If our hackles have risen in au courant productions when a beloved opera morphed into something rather too up-to-date, last night they quiesced, in part because of our expectation for a wise-guy treatment, but also because the directors chose arias and ensembles that at least could be stretched to make their general points. When we had enough of the shenanigans, we could close our good eye, skip the translations, and listen to the unaltered Italian.

The satirical content drew from “themes of lies, fake news, and scandal that feel as if they’ve been ripped from today’s headlines,” modeling “early reports from late night news shows,” machinations over casino gambling regulations designed to “benefit the moms and pops on Main Street,” a running gag of finding the source of a compromising video tape, and the vicissitudes of ass grabbing.

Just the words of the adaptation appeared on the screen behind the players, leaving copious space where the Italian and literal translations could have been provided. It would actually have been very interesting to have all three versions to see into the minds of the adapters. Some examples of original, literal and updated translations from the 32 numbers:

An immortal aria from Così fan tutte got slightly maligned:

Come scoglio immoto resta
Contro i venti e la tempesta,

Like a rock standing impervious
To winds and tempest,

I am wind proof
I am rain proof

Another aria from Così fan tutte served to convey a seeming doublecross:

Tradito, schernito
Dal perfido cor,

Betrayed and scorned
By her faithless heart,

totally screwed

With the aide to the strategist immobilized by anxiety and the majority leader trying to revive him with slaps to the face, an ensemble from Barber of Seville served nicely as a set up for the topsyturvy:

Freddo ed immobile
come una statua,

Cold and motionless
like a statue,

like a statue

The finale, taken from the first act of La Clemenza di Tito, played without translation or transmogrification before a dark screen. Did Mozart consider Metastasio’s words serious, fawning, or cynical? Why didn’t we see the words?

Serbate, oh Dei custodi
Della romana sorte,
In Tito il giusto, il forte,
L’onor di nostra eta.

O gods who guard
the fate of Rome,
preserve in Titus the just, the strong,
the glory of our age.

Six singers of consistently high quality gave the arias and ensembles deluxe treatment to the fine support of the almost always inevitable sounding period winds. The English dialog was more problematical. Only baritone David Kravitz and basso Paul An managed to declaim with authority, and that says something, when one is intoning lines such as “Defamation is a gentle breeze” or “being clear for clarity’s sake” or the obligatory “Christ, how supremely fucked am I.” The others spoke in verisimilitudinous conversational tones which didn’t carry. Indeed, we were surprised at the disproportion between singing and speaking power from the remaining four.

Paul An’s resonant bass pealed forth with the dignity of the Commendatore as the Senate Majority Leader. Depicting the ambitious strategist with dripping menace, Laura Bohn could let fly with some fine coloratura and carried her weight in the ensembles. Possessing a natural and unforced tenor instrument of pleasing quality, Patrick Cook did a perfect Sean Spicer. Sitting behind a newscaster’s desk much of the time, Dana Lynne Varga proved as essential as a Greek Chorus in explaining the plot. She could also produce stunning tone when she got the chance to sing. It surprised no one that David Kravitz mastered the comedy. Though he blasted brilliant baritonal mad scenes, his pashaesque prez in search of a seraglio perhaps constituted the sanest character on stage. The only heart-stoppingly gorgeous musical moments came from mezzo-soprano Vera Savage in the trouser role of the Aide to the Strategist. I’m very surprised that she has no Cherubino to her credit yet.

Conductor Geoffrey McDonald brought out real flair from the 11-member period band though he sometimes allowed them to cover the poorly projected dialog. Aside from some mild mood-acknowledging coloristic effects, Shannon Knotts’s lighting consisted mainly of blackouts after most numbers. Singers arranged the tables and chairs, and kept up non-stop motion to go with the patter and palaver, but did the President himself need to remove the coffee urn?

The company succeeded brilliantly in transforming an armory into a Volksoper, or people’s opera house replete with drinks, munchies and pleasant grunge. Another fine night of musical comedy is in store for Saturday night. Schikaneder would have left last night’s show with a broad smile, and DaPonte would have approved of skewering authority, but Metastasio might have raised an eyebrow or two.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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  1. I saw this on Friday. The humour started to wear a bit by the end and the denoument of who had leaked the tape was unconvincing; a little more attention to plotting and “On Behalf” night have had theatrical “legs”. But…supertitles have been around this long and no one had thought before of using ones that were totally unrelated to what was being sung? Thus the music could convey one emotions, etc. while the title told another story. (Peter Sellars in his prime used to do this such as what he did the Handel’s Orlando in 1982 with essentially parallel stories.)

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 6, 2018 at 11:27 pm

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