Buzzing in conversation, an increasingly larger group of people sat around the circular West Side Community Gardens, their proximity one another as close as it was to the numerous flower beds growing around them. A wind octet and string bass were perched on the Northern side of the central circle with conductor Geoffrey McDonald waiting patiently as more and more people entered.
Moments later, it was all “quiet,” though that is almost never the case in Manhattan. But as we awaited the first notes of Mozart’s “The Secret Gardener” as presented by On Site Opera, I could not help but be reminded a previous statement by Robert McKee in his “Story.” While a book about filmmaking, McKee is quick to remind us of the ritualistic and communal aspect of going into a theater and enjoying a story together. This is exactly the feeling I had during the non-stop 90 minutes of “The Secret Gardener.” People from all walks around the city joining in a communal experience like none other. As the singing-actors moved about the garden, nothing separated us from them. No tiered seating. No proscenium. No fourth wall. We were all part of the storytelling ritual, literally.
At one point in her first aria, soprano Maeve Höglund, who was playing Arminda, walked up a few steps and knelt in front of a mere toddler who was taking in the production. Singing about how women must establish standards before saying yes to any man, she took the child in her hands and sang right to her. Moments later, she found an elder gentleman and sang to him, her arms on his shoulders. This was arguably the most memorable of the audience interactions on the evening, but I must emphasize that this was constant throughout the entire running time. Later in the performance, Ramiro handed off a few pictures to audience members lining the central circle. In her ensuing aria, Arminda, not so gently, tore them out of the corresponding hands.
Mozart’s opera, here translated into English by Kelley Rourke, is quite basic in its plot, another element that played to the company’s advantage. Lady Violet and her cousin Robert are hiding from Violet’s former lover Count Belfiore. Keeping things child-friendly, Rourke states that Belfiore’s bad temper forced Violet to run away (in the original libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi he stabbed her) and she hides as a gardener as Sandrina. Robert, hiding under the guise of Nardo, has fallen for Mayor Podesta’s employee Serpetta who can’t stand her. Podesta is smitten with Sandrina while his niece Arminda is set to marry Belfiore. But her former lover Ramiro is still crazy about her. It is a tangled web of love triangles that predictably corrects itself by the end of the night.
Rourke’s translation plays up the repetition of text quite a bit but it plays to a huge advantage for the staging. The outdoor setting, unfortunately, is not always optimal for sound, especially when singers are turned away in a particular direction. Some singers fared better than others in the conditions, but with all the movement and repetition of text, director Eric Einhorn managed to ensure that they faced all directions at least once during an aria, keeping the audience from missing any essential moments. This worked less during spoken sections which had no such textual repetition, but these shortcomings did not hinder the experience in the least.
Given love as the central theme of the opera, Einhorn and company played up the “Love is painful” angle quite literally to start with characters literally attacking and “beating” each other up. Serpetta and Nardo prepare to get into a fist fight during a squabble while Arminda threatens Belfiore with scissors. At another point, Arminda takes a hose and ties Ramiro and Belfiore together in a vengeful gesture. As the lovers all come together, forgetting past sins and preparing for a happy future together, the violent gestures slowly fade away, replaced by more tender caresses.
Lights hanging all over the garden amplified emotions by changing color throughout. Arminda’s rage with her two “lovers” was met with raging red while Belfiore’s aria, in which he reflects on his emotions after seeing Violet again, sees the lights turn to a mystical purple. Another scene of love featured red but also purple to soften the harshness of the former color in the space.
A Solid Cast
On Site Opera assembled a terrific cast for the proceedings. Ashley Kerr starred as Violet, growing more and more comfortable vocally as the night proceeded. She was particularly wonderful during the close of the opera during her clinching love scene with Belfiore. Standing only a few feet away from where I was seated, she sang of her growing feelings with a gloriously polished legato and vibrato, her voice floating rather easily throughout the space, wiping out any distractions around. Her characterization of the heroine, while playful also played up her elegance. Even though she was a gardener, her gait suggested her class, particularly when compared to the body language of other characters.
Tenor Spencer Viator showcased a crisp tenor sound as Belfiore, his singing most engaging during his first aria, a comic moment of sudden infatuation with Arminda. Spewing one love cliché after another (“To behold her is to love her”), the tenor’s voice took on a lighter complexion which would contrast greatly with a darker and harsher tone during his conflicts with Violet. But here he sang with ease, all while throwing himself to the ground and clumsily doing his best to unsuccessfully woo Arminda. When she suddenly turned on him with an aggressive retort, the comic nature of the situation became amplified.
Speaking of Arminda, Höglund probably put together the most eye-opening performance of the night. From start to finish she was a vocal and dramatic force, her voice always clearly resonating through the space in a way no one else’s could. From her first entrance onward, she portrayed a stuck-up and entitled woman to perfection, her first aria featuring crisp and vicious textual enunciations, her coloratura runs colored with fierce bright colors. Every single move and word were an attack as if this was a woman acting from some internal pain. We never truly find out where this behavior might come from, but Höglund’s fantastic portrayal made me wonder, fully engaging me in her development. She grew even more despondent during an ensuing scene, tying up her lovers with a hose, her voice growing more accented in its phrasing. But she seemed to melt as Ramiro sang his final aria to her, running into his arms for a final kiss.
Ramiro’s final aria was beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein, who interpolated a potent high note at the passage’s apex, thrilling listeners. She portrayed Ramiro as an insecure young man, her visage always betraying concern and her more arched body position a sharp contrast from Belfiore or even Podesta’s.
Jonathan Blalock did a fine job portraying Podesta’s exaggerated wooing of Sandrina, throwing in a few puns (“I was a rake in my day, but women still dig me”) and his bright singing layering the work with some tongue-in-cheek comedy to contrast moments of darker humor. His final aria, in which he argues with his niece over her choice of lover, saw his singing grow more and more agitated as he capitulated to the ground.
Baritone Jorell Williams was another massive vocal presence throughout the night, the singer’s diction and voice clear from every spot in the garden. He was a feisty Nardo, his pursuits of Serpetta not-so-subtle but quite enjoyable. His aria on conquering any woman with any language was one of the musical highlights of the evening, the singer showcasing different colors for each language. A brighter touch was employed for Italian and at one point, during some French, his timbre appropriated a lighter quality as he struck a hilarious pose. But upon failing to win his heart’s desire, his voice turned darker and harsher as he rebuked his failed attempts, some utterances of words turning into potent shouts.
Finally, Alisa Jordheim’s Serpetta was a cooler presence in the early going, her prickly soprano harsh and jagged in early stages before taking on a more refined tonal quality as she gave into Nardo. We hadn’t gotten a chance to hear her sing so beautifully until this moment and her ease of phrasing and tender ascensions into the soprano stratosphere were soothing.
McDonald’s wind and bass ensemble kept Mozart’s score delicate and intimate, the pacing of the evening exemplary, the 90 minutes zipped by.
On Site Opera’s performance gets two more showings on Friday, May 12 and Saturday, May 13. It will then head to Atlanta Opera as part of its Discoveries Series for three performances on May 19 and 20 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Those in New York will want to bring some blankets and sweaters to combat the unpredictable weather. Those in Atlanta will likely get to enjoy the opera in their shorts and t-shirts.