Reviewed By Robert Greene
When you take a moment to realize how elitist opera and other forms of classical theatre have become you jump for joy at companies like The Bronx Opera. Translating and updating, they bring works that are slowly becoming invisible to “joe-theatregoer” thanks to soaring ticket costs and exclusive crowds, right to their door. A great case in point is the company’s final entry in their 40th season (a milestone for any mid-sized anything!)
The night opens with Mozart’s Impresario – directed and translated into great fun by Ben Spierman. It concerns a small opera company and its multi-tasking artistic director (Ed Friedman) and how he attempts to keep art alive without selling out. His mission gets tougher when greeted by a greasy financier (Gary Giardina) and his two mistresses (Katherine Wessinger and Nicole Lee Aiossa). Our impresario has all-but given up trying to keep his associate (Matthew Rzomp) on the straight and narrow as he is enticed and enthralled by the two attractive divas.
The hour-long curtain raiser sent the audience into hysterics as the corniest of jokes are given new twists amid divine voices and excellent acting. Ed Friedman’s deadpan delivery supplied the perfect rim shot to Rzomp and Giardina – each packing over-the-top tomfoolery and double takes. Rzomp also opened his mouth to sing and a glorious sound came out. The duo of divas gave sounded gorgeous when singing and contributed their own wackiness when exchanging barbs. Particularly wonderful was Nicole Lee Aiossa, as the grande dam hiding her “old neighborhood” grit.
Director Ben Spierman provided a fast moving and witty piece of theatre, which packed a thought-provoking punch in the face to corporate America’s treatment of the arts. If Amadeus is true, then Mozart would be proud – especially after Friedman’s grand exit speech.
Pagliacci, the second of the night is as near a perfect opera as you can get. The plot – timeless and gripping; the characters – based on real people – are briskly identifiable even – if not especially – by today’s standards; and the music, which alternates between heartbreakingly beautiful and rousing, never seems dull or heavy. And it’s also only an hour!
Again, Ben Spierman knows how to keep his audience in the seats. Promoted as taking place in a free performance band stage in some park (Brooklyn?) Images of Nathan’s signs, ped-taxis, and the green-leaf park sign brought this piece right to our door. The expansive chorus as fruit sellers, tour guides, hot dog venders, and others also helped the change in period.
Roger Ohlsen’s take on the jealous Canio (the “pagliaccio”) expertly blended expectation with innovation. His choice to play him as a tired and angry “great actor” made his jealously and volcanic temper more understandable and human. It put levels to his relationship with Nedda, his wife (played with darkness by Jenny Searles) that gave us a fresh take on this portion of the story. Jeremy Moore was terrific as Silvio, here as a philandering pretty-boy. Again, Matthew Rzomp was a standout as Beppe, the supporting actor, and Jerrett Gieseler, as the deformed Tonio, was a perfect foil for Searles. Their scenes together were engrossing as we watch two dark souls with their own agenda on a collision course.
A few touches did not gel with the modernization: Gieseler did not need a hump and his costume seemed to fight it for than enhance it; same can be said for Nedda’s costume, too confined and plain for her character; Canio’s knife and knife holder were incongruous in a world of Swiss army knives and homeland security, and the chorus singing of going to church made their exit confusing. You loose the lovely enselmble piece wondering what day and time it is. And there was a little too much use of red roses… somebody get an orchid or something.
Director Spierman guided his actors to the realization of well-fleshed characters while Michael Spierman, Elizabeth Scott, and Michael Haigler gave us some beautiful voices to enjoy. Ben Spierman’s staging was brisk and comfortable on the eyes. It gave the opera’s chorus (normally no more than set dressing) a chance to shine and shine they did as each voice blended as equally as their characters were individual. Standouts were the elderly chess players with their portable beach chairs and two strong actor-singers as very visible policemen.
But the standing ovation for the night should go to the company itself, The Bronx Opera – for four decades – has bestowed great power and artistic excellence to those who might never get a chance to view this great art form.