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Showdown with The Inspector

At the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, the team of composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell recently premiered The Inspector, their fourth opera. The Dresser caught the April 29, 2011 performance. Like most new operas, the performance run was limited and for this opera, directed by Leon Major, there were only three performances.

WELCOME TO SAINT FILTH

Mayor-and-Board-of-DirectorsSm.jpgLoosely based on The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol, the Musto-Campbell opera, set in the fictitious Sicilian town of Santa Schifezza during Mussolini's regime, hinges on a case of mistaken identity by a petty but corrupt official. Mayor Fazzobaldi (baritone Robert Orth) of Santa Schifezza--meaning Saint Filth or Saint Trash--explicitly states in the first scene of this two-act, five-scene opera that things are done "our way." While the Mayor wants to convince anyone listening that he has a democratic government (his officials call him "your supremacy"), his actions say, like Frank Sinatra's well-known ballad, "I did it my way." Hold on to that notion of musical pop culture.

Exactly, who is listening? Well, for one is Sister Anjelica (actor Naomi Jacobson) who has just come to town to open an orphanage or so her note says since another note indicates that she has taken a vow of silence. The Mayor, who has just gotten news that one of Mussolini's inspectors is about to sneak into his town, grants the silent sister a promise about the orphanage in exchange that she becomes his biographer to record his good deeds. He says that his book The Mayor of Santa Schifezza: A Day in the Life of will become a best seller, leaving the Bible "in the dust." Can you hear, Dear Reader, the Mob man Sinatra climaxing with:

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels and
not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows
and did it my way!

OK, maybe the Sinatra association is a little far fetched but the Dresser got defocused a number of times during this supposedly comic opera.

MIXING IT UP

The story spins into action when the town's twin mail carriers--think Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee--convince the Mayor to read a letter that comes packaged in elegant paper. How about you, Dear Reader?--the Dresser loves shopping in Florence for stationery and note cards, even in the bargain markets, the Italian paper is high quality. Bobachina (soprano Andrea Shokery) says, "The swaper's very panky" and Bobachino (mezzo-soprano Hilary Ginther) interprets "the paper's very swanky." Mayor-MailmenSmall.jpgThe letter warns the Mayor about an inspector from Rome traveling incognito and shortly thereafter, the Mayor has latched onto two seemingly down and out men who have, in fact, come from Rome. However, the audience knows that the younger, blond man Tancredi (tenor Vale Rideout) and the older companion Cosimo (baritone William Sharp) are not inspectors, but just two hungry people who have lost all their money and who are trying for some unexplained reason to get to a boat in Palermo. Things are not as they appear in this opera.

Musically, the opera blends tonality and dissonance with a landscape of what sounds like Italian folk tunes, circus tunes, silent screen melodies and droll noises like a contrabassoon imitating Cosimo's hunger pangs. Musto assigns the best music to the Mayor's headstrong daughter Beatrice (soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird). In Act I, her aria about having nothing but contempt for the new leader of Italy (Mussolini is not mentioned but certainly understood) introduces a simpler musical line in what has been throughout this act, an overly busy and complex regimen that quite frankly bored the Dresser. However, the Dresser suspects that judicious cutting of Act I would remedy that problem and give the Dresser renewed respect for the composer's challenging offering. Beatrice, who constantly has her nose in a book, also steals musical attention when she replies to her parents who want her to be nice to Tancredi (the Mayor has been offering all sorts of bribes to him because he thinks Tancredi is Mussolini's inspector). Beatrice is furious with her parents, because they pulled her out of her studies at the university after only one year.FamilySmall.jpg

All of the performers gave excellent recitals but the Dresser expects any cast working under Leon Major to perform at this level. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen as Sarelda, the wife of Mayor Fazzobaldi and mother of Beatrice, delivered a notable performance in the last scene of Act I when she sang about the shoes and hats she hopes to have when they move to Rome, now that she believes her husband has bought Tancredi's full support.

Erhard Rom's set was every bit as engaging as the two he created for the Wolf Trap productions of Musto-Campbell's Volpone. What the Dresser particularly liked was that the three walls required stagehands to get very physical when they were required to turn them. This visceral engagement reminded the Dresser of construction workers in Italy who always seemed to be more emotionally involved with their buildings than American construction workers.

DO ITALIANS SPEAK FRENCH?

This brings the Dresser's attention to the one aspect of The Inspector that seemed caught up in a formulaic approach and that was the libretto. While the Dresser understands the difficulty in meeting the standard set by Stephen Sondheim for rhyme, with all the attention to things Italian, Campbell gets lazy by using French phrases instead of Italian. Predominately, Tancredi is the character dropping in French (Enchanté, Madame. Vous êtes aussi belle que cette campagne.) but many other characters also have French phrases or words like Sarelda, (about whom the audience learns from the Mayor that his first lady was a street whore who would "screw for new shoes." For example in Sarelda's aria outlining how things would go if she and the Mayor moved to Rome, she not only dreams about shoes but also hats such as the cloche and breton, both being French in origin. Near the end of the opera most of the Mayor's staff bid Tancredi "au revoir." Perhaps Campbell thinks this is how to express snobbism or elitism, but the Dresser thinks that Italians would not be so likely to drop in French phrases.

Eleanor Wilner's poem "High Noon" elicits the psychological environment as well as the final showdown scene in The Inspector. Initially, the opera seems to be a black and white situation with two-dimensional characters, but unexpectedly things change to a much more complex and serious scenario. The Dresser won't give away the ending.

HIGH NOON

The soul is not so clean & white
as Kleenex; as old Faust dramatized,
it can be sold for a dram of power,

it wars within, and good
struggles with not-so-good, or vice
versa, the soul's creatures unsure

about what's natural in selection: symbiosis
vs. dog eat dog. Uncertain about who is fit
for what, the soul scratches its itchy

ineffability, sits down on its missing rump
and thumps the somatic walls of its cage;
unable to shout, it calls (nevertheless)

on the gods of all tortured souls to buy
a ticket to the last frontier,
where souls are one thing or another,

where the borders are guarded by walls,
and the sun is forever at noon, no shadows
intrude, & two men are forever about

to reach for their holsters and draw.
While God, directly above, ponders
which side to be on.


by Eleanor Wilner
from Tourist in Hell


Copyright © 2010 Eleanor Wilner

Photos from the Wolf Trap Opera Company Blog

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Comments (2)

Fascinating. I wonder about the mixed French phrases.Could that allude to the cosmopolitan characters? Since Europeans are acquainted with - and use- so much more language than we do. An interesting observation though, and if it stopped the flow, worth noting. Thank you

The Dresser:

If The Inspector had any Italian phrases to counter the French, the Dresser might not have been bothered by the French phrases. She looked carefully through the libretto and saw many French words. The only attempt to supply Italian words were in the names of people or their town. If Tancredi's companion Cosimo had been a French teacher -- he in fact was a professor of violin and Tandredi was a university student, the Dresser would have better understood the insertion. However, because Tancredi and Cosimo were fleeing Rome, in reality they would not have called attention to themselves by using foreign phrases. Realize that Italy was fighting the Western world and France was not an ally.

The Dresser puts this back on the librettist who seemed to use facile rhymes. It is a lot easier to rhyme with consonant endings. For example: the Mayor's cabinet says to Tancredi & company:

We need to bid this party 'au revoir.'
Before they find out who we really are.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 30, 2011 9:58 PM.

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