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Give Wolf Trap Opera credit for its persistence in exploding the myth that opera is a highbrow art form. The company serves as a showcase for rising stars during the summer months, when regular opera houses go dark, the latest Marvel movie hits theaters, and everyone’s IQ drops a few points. WTO has occasionally gone for more cerebral, feel-bad fare like Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. But more often than not, it’s silly and stupid that packs seats at the Barns, their rustic venue in the Vienna (the other Vienna) woods.
Few composers demonstrated how dumb opera can be better than Gioachino Rossini. La pietra del paragone, The Touchstone, isn’t as famous as his later genre-defining comedies, The Barber of Seville and Cinderella. But it contains all the elements you’d expect of an Italian buffa: sappy romance, cross-dressing, characters easily fooled by cross-dressing, and orientalism, though nothing too offensive to modern sensibilities (i.e. no rape, something you can’t take for granted with opera.)
Still, it’s not one of Rossini’s best. The music is made up of a lot of orchestral busywork, often manic and nonsensical; its most enduring aria is about a poet who can’t spell “Mississippi.” The story is reality TV-worthy, about a wealthy bachelor who has to choose among three thirsty ladies and does so by putting them through a test, by pretending to be broke. He’s subsequently put through a test by one of them, whom he fails to recognize because she’s wearing a mustache. Perhaps it’s because she’s a contralto in the original, though a mezzo in this version so he has no excuse.
The mustachioed final rose winner, Clarice, is played by the terrific Zoie Reams, whose rich, dramatic mezzo gives her immediate authority on stage. Her frequent duet partner, the bachelor Asdrubale, is played by the equally resonant bass Richard Ollarsaba. The vocal talent is strong all around, including a pair of very different baritones, Shea Owens as a no-talent poet and Ki-Hun Yoon as a cowardly journalist, apparent stand-ins for librettists and music critics who pissed off Rossini at some point. There’s also a pair of aristocratic frenemies played by soprano Summer Hassan and mezzo Megan Mikailovna Samarin, apparent stand-ins for Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The single standout performance comes from tenor Alasdair Kent who, while playing otherwise minor character Giocondo and taking a while to warm up, nails his Act 2 aria Quell’alme pupille with some impressively acrobatic runs.
Director E. Loren Meeker’s production for Wolf Trap has a lot of talent on stage and not much else. The set design is uninspiring, a series of pea green upright rectangles that make it look like everyone’s singing in front of a giant bar chart. The orchestra, led by Antony Walker, was underpowered at times, particularly in the violins. It’s hard to tell if the costumes are supposed to be period-specific or inspired by Willy Wonka. Meeker’s best innovation is a low budget hunting scene in which the would-be hunters are tormented by cardboard cutouts of increasingly unlikely animals.
No direction, however, can make up for the fact that The Touchstone is a three-hour opera with about one hour’s worth of story, stretched out with unnecessary detours and lots of repetition. That Wolf Trap’s crack performers pour so much into such a mediocre opera almost feels like a waste of talent. The Touchstone isn’t a draw for any company: for an opera that debuted in 1812, no one bothered to stage it in the U.S. until the 1950s. Wolf Trap has done dumb and fun before, including stuff more obscure than this, to better effect. But sometimes there’s only so much you can do with the source material.
The production continues Wednesday, June 28 and Saturday, July 1 at 7:30 p.m. at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA. $32 – $88.