In its seventh season, Neal Goren's Gotham Chamber Opera scored another distinct success with Rossini's 1813 Il Signor Bruschino (seen Jan. 25), one of several early, long one-acts written for Venice. Gotham specializes in local premieres and rediscoveries; Bruschino - reportedly unstaged in New York since its Met (and U.S. premiere) production in 1932-33, with Tullio Serafin conducting Ezio Pinza and Giuseppe de Luca - certainly merited (and rewarded) the effort.
The plot recombines ancient Roman comic premises with the mechanics of commedia dell'arte: intercepted letters, conspiratorial maidservants and, principally, what we'd call today "identity theft." Florville rescues his beloved Sofia from an arranged marriage by impersonating her fiancé, a young carouser named Bruschino - conveniently imprisoned for debt - whom Sofia's guardian (Gaudenzio, enemy to Florville's late father) has never seen. Trouble ensues when Bruschino père comes to finalize arrangements and unexpectedly encounters a "son" whom, at first, he understandably refuses to recognize.
Indubitably better connected and better funded than most "off-Broadway" companies, Gotham always delivers visual style: here, the decor evoked Fellini's La Dolce Vita or Giulietta degli Spiriti. Donald Eastman's whitewashed International Style upscale urban staircase with balconies served the plot superbly; the wings were left open to allow the passage of bicycles and the (inevitable) light-blue scooter. Martin Pakledinaz's nifty period costumes were of his accustomed flattering excellence; makeup and hair (Hagen Linss) were spot-on.
Robin Guarino's staging aroused somewhat more mixed feelings. On the one hand, the director inspired a game, limber cast to sustain for more than eighty minutes an incredibly high level of farce - no small achievement in the spoken theater, let alone in opera. Much of the "business" was funny and apt. Yet Bruschino, unlike some other Rossini one-acts, is not consistently farcical in musical character, and the chosen style steamrollered right over the score's contrasting sentimental passages (mainly involving the lovers). Moreover, in places, an evident reluctance to edit things that had tickled the funny bone in the rehearsal room led the action to betray a principle stated in Guarino's program note: "The point is to make living choices rather than stock ones…. the comedy must be discovered, not imposed." It's wonderful to abandon buffo shtick for something fresh; but at this late point in the era of Regie-theater updatings, some of what we ultimately saw derived merely from a newer register of stock choices: victory dances, emotion-obscuring sunglasses, dry humping to lyrical love duets and rapidly puffed cigarettes are as common in American operatic comedy today as … well, as onstage scooters.
One of the current trademarks of an over-directed show surfaced immediately: an overture with a dumb show so elaborate that one could sense the audience stop listening. (The visual counterpoint to the famous moments when the second violins strike their instruments with their bows was amusing the first two times it happened, with diminishing returns thereafter.) Furthermore, the performers unleashed a barrage of extra-musical noise - banging, stomping, yelping and a shrieky, floor-pounding faked seizure by Sofia - that in itself, and by virtue of the audience yucks it elicited, rendered virtually inaudible the lovely English horn obbligato to her aria. To overlard, say, the well-known glories of Barbiere di Siviglia with supra-musical gag noise is one thing; to do so when an opera is unfamiliar to 99 percent of the audience seems highly questionable and - bearing in mind this company's 2005 Arianna - a besetting directorial temptation at Gotham, which specializes in less familiar scores. The house tendency to place visual values in the foreground shortchanges the ostensible lynchpin of the enterprise - the noteworthy skill of the founder/conductor in forging a stylish ensemble from well-chosen orchestral forces.
As one has come to expect, Goren also fielded singers manifestly talented and well suited to their roles. As in this fall's Semele at City Opera, where he is gaining deserved prominence, Eric Jordan showed that a big, high-quality, robust bass need not rule out creditable agility. He played the deceived patriarch Gaudenzio with a genial irascibility that seemed exactly right, his self-satisfaction extending to a sensual rapport with his housekeeper Marianna (the lusciously attractive Emily Langford Johnson, extremely stage-savvy and sporting a fine chestnut-hued mezzo for which one wished Rossini had provided more music). Baritone Marco Nisticò as Bruschino (senior) - initially the victim but in time the facilitator of the romantic plot - deployed a well-focused tone, and both the Rossini style and the needed farcical outraged dignity were at his fingertips.
The romantic leads, soprano Lisa Hopkins (Sofia) and tenor Alek Shrader (Florville) are the kind of camera-ready young singers today's marketing directors dream of (as is Langford Johnson). Fortunately, unlike all too many so-termed "total package" artists these days, they can also sing. The top of Hopkins's very pretty instrument (midway between soubrette and coloratura) retains a touch of brightly aggressive music-theater sound, but she proved accomplished as well as stunning. Shrader is a real find, able to channel both "boy next door" and (while impersonating the younger Bruschino) louche playboy, utilizing a finely honed, agile lyric tenor with considerable dynamic variety and cleanly molded phrasing. Steven Goldstein (Commissario di Polizia, plus two silent roles) seemed in the running for some Andrea Velis Memorial Award for Eye-Catching Upstage Business; but, like Velis, Goldstein knows his craft. Matthew Lau's somewhat bluff Filiberto and Michael Kelly, as the real Bruschino (junior), here played as a hopeless drunken roustabout, completed Guarino's frenetic vision. The audience left happy.