Sometimes being broke can be liberating. If you’re a smaller opera company with a limited budget, there are a number of directions you can go, all perfectly valid. You can do miniature versions of traditional operas, disposing of bit roles, whittling down orchestral scores to fit a string quartet. Or you can do chamber operas designed from the start for smaller stages. While you’re at it, you can broach subjects that wouldn’t be so appropriate for the Kennedy Center. An opera about hotwifing, for example.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, check elsewhere on this site for Savage Love. And if you’re familiar and it upsets your sensibilities, probably best to steer clear of Bastianello and Lucrezia. Or leave during intermission. It’s UrbanArias’ sort-of-premiere of two short, paired comic operas originally commissioned and partially staged by the New York Festival of Song, both written by librettist Mark Campbell, with composers John Musto (a frequent Campbell collaborator, last seen together here for Wolf Trap Opera’s The Inspector in 2011) for the former and William Bolcom for the latter. Campbell suffuses both with his trademark dad humor, here mostly set to Petrarchan sonnets, the effect being that even the corniest of jokes work as a self-conscious genre parody.
Bastainello tells the story—-kind of an Appalachian folk tale—-of a guy who sets out to look for six people stupider than his own family, quickly meets them, and finds himself explaining to strangers the mechanics of how to put on their pants. The fact that he keeps running into the same four cast members, wearing the same period costumes, playing different stupid people (the narrator doubles as a horse) isn’t really explained, nor is why this is a period piece to begin with (set, for no particular reason, in 18th Century Italy), but you know, just roll with it.
Lucrezia, the raunchier, and better, of the two, also has a randomly specific setting (Córdoba, Argentina, c. 1900) but makes more sense because so much of the singing is devoted to painstaking exposition regarding a plot to trick a curmudgeonly old man into pimping out his wife to a lovestruck, or just horny, admirer. The scheme involves silly disguises like a German doctor who doesn’t speak German (“Glutentag!”) and a priest with a bicycle confessional. Here the self-referential irony is as thick as a bife de chorizo—-“I can’t think while you’re rhapsodizing in Spanish clichés!”—-but you can forgive even the worst lines (“If God sayeth/it’s okayeth”). Because when Campbell is on, he’s not merely so-bad-it’s-funny, but genuinely, belly laugh provoking, funny. And in Lucrezia, he’s at his best.
Bolcom’s music for Lucrezia also works more seamlessly, a jaunty score that matches well with the singing; Musto’s, for Bastianello, is more halting, and at times cloying, but both are pleasantly melodic and easy to follow. Both operas are written for two pianos, which are not always both necessary. But while music and singing—-all of it decent-to-nice, particularly from Catherine Martin and Tom Corbeil—-are the main draws for most opera, here, that’s not really the point. Small-scale opera is more like community theater. You don’t go to be blown away by the orchestration or vocal acrobatics. You go for a fun story, with no frills and an intimate setting. Here you get all that, and some puns. Which is either a bonus or not, I suppose.
The production continues June 14 at 8 p.m. and June 15 at 2 p.m. at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.