Who would have guessed that a comedy about fascism would turn out to be not that funny?
It’s not that it hasn’t been done before; The Great Dictator is nearly as old as the movement it spoofed. The Inspector—-a new comic opera commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation—-is also a slapstick story of mistaken identity set against the rise of genocidal nationalism in 20th century Europe. Like Charlie Chaplin’s classic, its humor derives from the tension produced by this dark contradiction. Unlike Chaplin’s classic, a lot of it falls flat.
This is too bad, because of everything else it has going for it. A provocative premise—-a political satire that draws parallels between Mussolini’s Italy and present-day America, a lively score by composer John Musto performed beautifully by the house orchestra, and a talented cast that can act as well as sing—-something you can’t always count on in opera. Even the rough-hewn wooden rafters of The Barns, where the work is staged, are appropriately rustic for an opera set in rural Sicily.
The story unfolds in the fictional town of Santa Schifezza in the 1920s, where Mayor Fazzobaldi maintains power through graft, bribery, espionage, and torture along with his equally sleazy cabinet, including chain-smoking health minister Malacorpa and “director of salvation resources” Padre Ruffiano (librettist Mark Campbell is almost as fond of puns as are the City Paper’s editors). Campbell isn’t afraid to go below the belt, alluding to the priest’s fondness for young boys and habit of pimping nuns in his illustration of small town corruption.
The dysfunction comes to a head when the mayor receives a letter announcing the visit of a government inspector from Rome, one of the tools Mussolini used to centralize power and root out crooked local officials. The subsequent arrival of two mysterious out-of-towners sends the town into a tizzy, with the mayor both fearful and hopeful that they may be his ticket out of this cow town. Cosimo and Tancredi, the supposed inspectors who are really political dissidents on the lam, are at first taken aback. But they soon play along with the mayor’s desire to bribe his way into their good graces, with Tancredi kindling an unlikely romance with the mayor’s Marxist daughter.
The Inspector’s tight cast of 11, no chorus (“I’m not a fan of anything useless on stage,” says Campbell) pulls out some great performances. Among them is Sarah Larsen, an understudy who got the last-minute role of the mayor’s wife Sarelda, a budding Imelda Marcos whose vamping paean to shoes is the opera’s most memorable aria (which nevertheless goes on too long). Musto’s score has the feel of an old Carl Stalling Looney Tunes number, jumping all over the map: Strains of “Stars and Stripes Forever” crop up with a fascist party anthem, played by paired woodwinds and French horns while on stage, the mayor’s cabinet celebrates “a new Italy.” All this irony puts the audience in the weird position of wondering if they should be rooting for the mayor’s comeuppance by Mussolini’s agents.
For The Inspector, Wolf Trap brought back the dream team of Musto and Campbell, whose previous collaboration, 2004’s Volpone, snagged a Grammy nomination. Campbell and Musto started with Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector and then drastically reworked it because, according to Campbell in a pre-show Q and A, “I didn’t find the play all that funny.”
That may have been a bad omen from the start. At the very least, it would raise doubts that turning the play into an opera and moving it from czarist Russia to fascist Italy may not do a whole lot to up the laugh value. It also raises the question: Why not just keep it as a play? If comedy is all about timing, the surtitles, along with the need to syncopate lines with music, take away much of the element of surprise.
The result is a risqué comedy that aims for belly laughs and draws wry smiles instead. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t quite hit the mark, because it’s precisely the kind of new production we need more of. At a time of nationwide arts funding cutbacks, Wolf Trap is bucking the trend by expanding its programming with newly composed work that is daring, irreverent and written in English.
“This town would be funny if it weren’t real,” sings Beatrice, the mayor’s daughter. Considering everything else it does right, the story might be funnier if it weren’t an opera.
The Inspector plays at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Rd., Vienna, Va., on Friday, April 29 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 1 at 3 pm. $32 – $72. 1-877-965-3872.