BWW Reviews: THE IMPRESARIO Delights St. Louis at Gateway Opera

My God, this is an opera town! Opera Theatre of St. Louis has produced world-class opera for forty years. Union Avenue Opera (now anticipating its twenty-first season) and Winter Opera (with eight seasons under its belt) both continue to grow and give us high quality operatic richesse. And now this amazing new little company, Gateway Opera, has come onto the scene.

Gateway Opera's production of Mozart's The Impresario is one of the most delightful evenings of opera that I've ever experienced.

But first a little back-story:

Before Peter Shaffer's Amadeus hit the boards in '79 who'd ever heard of Antonio Salieri? Salieri was, of course, the official kappelmeister or court composer of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Well, in 1786 the rivalry between Salieri and that young upstart Wolfgang Mozart was the talk of Viennese high society. The emperor Franz Josef, in a moment of wry humor, invited (or commanded) Mozart and Salieri to engage in a bout of operatic fisticuffs. Each was to compose a short comic opera for a soirée to be held in the royal orangerie. Vienna held its breath. This was to be like an eighteenth century version of the "Thrilla in Manilla." First Mozart's work was to be presented. Then, after an intermission (and extravagant nibbles that can only be imagined nowadays) Salieri's offering was to be staged at the opposite end of the hall. The winner was to be decided by audience applause.

Well, Mozart was the loser by a knockout! Salieri's opera buffa (comic opera) triumphed over Mozart's singspiel (comedy with songs).

Today Salieri's little entertainment is long forgotten, but Mozart's witty one-act opera, The Impresario, still survives. In fact it flourishes--most especially here in Gateway Opera's production of a new and brilliant adaptation by Caetlyn Van Buren. It's presented at the Kranzberg--not in their black-box theatre, but in their cabaret space. It's the most intimate opera environment you're ever apt to visit. The moment I walked in I felt the merry spirit of the Gateway Opera folks from the posters adorning the walls--comic posters for imaginary operas. Throughout the performance (which runs an hour and a bit) a scenic artist stands at the back of the stage leisurely painting finishing touches onto a cathedral backdrop. Once or twice she whistles contentedly to herself. (It was later that I realized that this nearly silent artist was adapter/director Van Buren herself.)

The plot of The Impresario is simply a parody of the vanities of competing divas--and of the whole business of opera. We watch and listen in delight as several very talented ladies compete in auditions for a company's forthcoming season. The original score of The Impresario had only four arias, but Caetlyn Van Buren has very fruitfully expanded the show by including six additional arias as audition pieces. These are from various other Mozart operas--Cosi fan tutte, Magic Flute, Idomeneo and Zaide. And they are most cleverly presented.

The comedy sharpens as we find that each and every one of the contending divas is romantically involved with the Impresario himself--the company's financial benefactor, Frank Angel. So there is sexual jealousy as well as professional jealousy playing out before us.

The dialogue--yes, there is much dialogue between the songs, so this is still definitely a singspiel-- The dialogue is wondrously fresh and funny. It's clever, it's intelligent, it's hilarious. And these singers can act!! Such a sense of comedy, such perfect timing, such intensity! (And such a voraciously sexy kiss!!)

Ellen Hinkle and Johanna Nordhorn start us off with a lovely duet from Cosi fan tutte. Then they're joined by Nathan Ruggles for a gorgeous trio--also from Cosi.

Ruggles plays the role of Bluff, the director conducting the auditions. The feckless Bluff, with artsy long hair, seems a bit disillusioned--always fretting about the budget. How is he going to fund a glitter fountain and at least a little neon which are absolutely essential to his artistic vision for the show. Anyway, Ruggles is a treat. He has one of the best lines in the show: "Of course opera doesn't make money! Money goes in and opera comes out!"

Anthony Heinemann is Frank Angel, the show's "angel". He is a lanky hunkish sort of guy with an engaging helpless innocence among all these contending females. And he has a fine tenor voice.

The actual auditions give us an assortment of Mozart, each aria having its own eccentric comic twist. Gina Malone knows only the Italian lyrics to "Una donna a quindici anni," but when asked to sing in English she gamely ad libs a translation. Carolyn Corrales, as Mme. Goldentrill, a zaftig German diva, has done her own translation beforehand--using Google Translate. Katie Rush is intensely melodramatic in her aria from Idomeneo.

In the opera Zaide the "Tiger" aria is sung by the heroine to her husband, the Sultan, begging him to "sharpen his claws" and kill her quickly. Here in The Impresario Laurel Dantas becomes the very tiger itself, with a frightening (and comic) fierceness. She seems about to tear poor Frank apart and devour him.

Ellen Hinkel, as Miss Silverpeal, decorates her beautiful rendition of "Bester Jüngling" with some showy flourishing of her glamorous long hair.

In the end the two finalists, Silverpeal and Goldentrill, after nearly engaging in a sword fight, come to an agreeable compromise--which makes them happy, but threatens to bankrupt the company.

Throughout the evening the singing is quite superb. There simply is no weak link in this production. And music director Robert Valentine does does excellent work as the audition pianist. He starts with a brilliant and very Mozartean overture, and that brilliancy--from all the performers--never fades.

It's a short, exciting, young and energetic, beautifully successful offering. My congratulations to all concerned--and especially to artistic director Kate Reiman.

Gateway Opera's production of Mozart's The Impresario played at the Kranzbert in Grand Center on April 24th and 25th.

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From This Author Steve Callahan

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