Editorial Credit: By Harriet Howard Heithaus of the Naples Daily News
Image Credits: Ivan Seligman
Here’s a four-word review of “The Four-Note Opera.” Wicked. Difficult. Revealing. Provocative.
The Tom Johnson sendup of the format and its stars presented by Opera Naples this weekend is just as much for lovers of edgy theater as it is for opera lovers — perhaps even more so because of its insistence on adhering to just four notes. Bel canto opera lovers would glaze over in 15 minutes, or at least until the soprano — there are no names in this work — warbles her way through her second aria, studded with vocal gewgaws (but still in the four notes of D, E, A and B). What we have here is opera for theatergoers. Or is it theater for opera lovers?
Whichever it is, Opera Naples, in its Wang Opera Center, honored Johnson’s intent of skewering the genre, with divas who warmed up like wounded birds, recitatives of maddening repetition and rivalry among vocal registers for the choice moments.
We think singers secretly love doing “Four-Note Opera” at least a bit, being able to act out a few simmering feelings of injustice or superiority. But turning that into an effective physicality isn’t particularly easy for singers who often are expected to stand in a single spot to pour out their emotion. Stage director Tony Salatino has successfully loosened this cast, who circle one other, push their companions offstage and waltz through a quartet performed by three singers, deftly brushing off the tenor at every turn.
Still, they must incorporate solid vocal ability, and these four have been cast well for it. They’re the core of the Opera Naples Young Stars program, playing several roles over the season and getting the chance to star in at least one. (Look for them in “La Traviata” in March.)
Jennifer Lindsay, the soprano, is clearly headed for bigger things. She displays a clever comic ability to mug at her compatriots one minute and float through a four-note vocalise the next. Her vocal athleticism is impressive; the woman can literally swing volume like a lariat.
Comparisons may be unfair, however, because she has the lioness’s share of stage time in “Four-Note Opera.” The tenor (Francisco Bedoy) wails that he’s in “very fine voice tonight,” but has only one solo. Perhaps he’s lucky, given that the baritone (Ryan Hill), boasting about his 152-bar aria, is stuck singing which number bar he’s crossed for a third of it.
Clara Nieman (“I play the contralto but of course I’m really a mezzo!”) is the equal of all in tone, expression and comic timing. But none of them, except for Lindsay and a few marathon notes from Hill, get the chance to shine vocally. This is a work meant to send a message about opera and its music rather than serve it.
For that reason, and buttressed with a preface from Salatino, it’s just as much a play for the opera-challenged as it is a parody for opera fans. Its 50-minute run time should soothe even operaphobes, who can distract themselves admiring Laura Friesen’s piano accompaniment, Salatino’s funky props and the eveningwear coordinated by Judy Hushon.
Or they can worry, every time the singers have to circle the piano, whether they’ll fall over that precariously close platform edge, a sure disincentive to staying in character.
But that was a rare flaw in a production that — thanks especially to four smart young stars — was a refreshing change of operatic pace.