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One measure of how geeky an art form might be is how self-referential it gets. How hard is it to decipher without Genius.com? How many artists write songs about their own genre, or worse, name their bands after it? (Top offenders, country and ska, respectively.) There’s nothing wrong with having a niche audience, but appeal exclusively to those already in-the-know and you end up like those low budget evangelical Christian movies you see on Rotten Tomatoes with 100 percent favorable ratings from users and 0 percent from critics: not winning any converts.
So an opera about opera is pretty geeky, though it’s been done, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos most famously. For one that’s far less famous, like L’Opera Seria, an obscure work by an equally obscure 18th century Bohemian composer, Florian Leopold Gassmann, an opera company must have a zealot’s faith in their audience’s geekiness to hope to sell tickets. This is LARP-level geekiness, wearing-your-Star-Trek-uniform-to-work-level geekiness. Fortunately, opera fans tend to meet that standard. But this is something non-geeks can appreciate too. Because Wolf Trap’s production of this 1769 opera you would never see otherwise is amazingly, genuinely, stands-on-its own hilarious.
Granted, it doesn’t hurt to be familiar with some of the opera tropes Gassmann spoofs here, particularly those of opera seria, the then-popular style of dramatic opera which he actually wrote quite a lot of. But some are timeless, and director Matthew Ozawa updates others: the pushy stage moms, the union stagehand, the prima donna actress complete with purse dog, the dance troupe of mismatched styles (ballet, hip hop, modern), including a contemporary dancer wearing Crocs. The opera-within-an-opera, which Gassmann used to lampoon his fellow composers’ penchants for unnecessary ornamentation and coloratura, here mocks his successors’ penchant for ill-informed exoticism: an “Indian”-themed production that includes, incongruously, a guy in a turban, French ladies in powdered wigs, a pirate ship, and a pair of highly suggestive dancing dolphins that evoke the Katy Perry Super Bowl halftime show.
Even the audience isn’t spared. Ozawa places actors in the crowd playing obnoxious opera fans who, in the final act’s staged performance, start clapping and Brava–ing at everything, shouting advice at the singers, and getting up and taking pictures. All that’s missing is a guy coughing up a lung and a hearing aid going off.
There is a story too, but it’s the same hapless-company-stages-awful-production plot that’s behind every bad-theater farce from The Producers to Noises Off. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean the humor is sophisticated, just that all the puns are in Italian. Composer Sospiro (Jonas Hacker) and librettist Delirio (Kihun Yoon) are nominally working on an opera together, but really trying to undercut each other before the director Fallito (Richard Ollarsaba), while sucking up to various cast members, including rival sopranos Stonatrilla (Clarissa Lyons) and Smorfiosa (Mane Galoyan), dumb pretty boy tenor Ritornello (Alasdair Kent), and chain-smoking dance coordinator Passagallo (Christian Zaremba). A terrible rehearsal leads to a disastrous performance, an audience mutiny, and everyone finally brought back together by the object of their shared hatred: opera directors (God help me, I was expecting it to be opera critics).
One benefit of staging an unknown opera is it’s harder to tell what, if anything, didn’t work. But without reference to any other version—Ozawa cut down the original considerably from four hours—I’d venture to say it’s nearly perfect. Or as perfect as something this goofy needs to be. And if some of the singing is a little off, it kind of enhances the overall effect. So if Kent, playing a dashing but untalented tenor, struggled to hit some of his notes, or if Yoon, playing a pompous librettist, drowned out his duet partner, was that deliberate? How meta is this humor anyway? And does it matter? What’s important is this may be the most you’ll laugh at any opera, definitely one that you’ve never seen before and will likely never see again. And if opera’s not your thing, this might make it your thing. Ozawa, and Wolf Trap, took a risk and got it exactly right. Like those bravas, “can’t miss” gets thrown around too much, but in this case, it’s true.
The production repeats Wednesday, July 20 and Saturday, July 23 at 7:30 pm at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd. $32 – $88. In Italian with English surtitles.