A romp, a fiesta, a “lotta” fun, and musically, young-voice rich – that’s West Edge Opera’s production of “The Chastity Tree,” the 18th century comedy, à la Mozart, by Vicente Martin Y Soler. One of the trio of Summer Opera Festival performances by the “edgy” West Edge Company, founded in 1979, as Commedia dell’Opera, then as Berkeley Opera, has added another original production to its roster of 91 operas by 56 composers. The West Edge’s production was directed by artistic director Mark Streshinsky, conducted by Robert Mollicone, and choreographed by Sarah Berges.
To Be Chaste or Not
The story hardly taxes: The goddess Diana, chaste goddess of the moon and huntress, rivals Amour, Cupid, as to whether things should flow toward Love or Chastity. Diana played elegantly as well as comedically by Nikki Einfeld creates a Tree which not only records those breaking their vows of Chastity, but punishes them as well. If they stay virtuous, fruit ripens and music plays. If not, “sinners” get pelted with it, perhaps to death. “What’s to choose?” a visitor from our current era might say. Despite the chasteberry herb, well-known in health-food stores, prescribed for decreasing sexual desire, the once-upon a time virtue works only to further the plot than anything else.
The plot, however, made musical by no less than Mozart’s own librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte – takes us through our paces, and we are compelled to consider it, in its two-hour unfolding. It is not until Diana, however, shot by her own arrow undergoes Cupid’s smarts, and her Chastity tree tumbles to destruction, do we come back to the message – Love Conquers All. Forget herbs and such virtue. En route, we see stage antics galore and hear much lovely singing, arias, duets, trios, and, ensembles, well-balanced and sonorous, filling the high-ceilinged warehouse, with beauty and lofty feeling.
To begin – the costumes, the staging and the lights. Gaudy, giddy and garish, costumes imaginatively designed by Christina Crook, capture our attention. A slew of nymphs not only arrive on scene in green satin body suits, but mono-breasted, sometimes lit, sometimes not. Are they apples? Or perhaps leaves that cavort, albeit not in synchrony or, especially elegantly? Ultimately, they do the job of climbing up and down the ladder-tree – conjured by assorted ladders, plumed with over-sized pink fluff-fronds, and peep and hang over it through most of the action, except when they climb down, cavort around again and pick up odd jobs needed to keep the plot moving. Three nymphs in particular, Clizia, played by Molly Mahoney, Chloe, played by Kathleen Moss, and Britomarte, played by Maya Kherani, weave in and out of the action in their own outrageous all-glitz mini dresses – pink and orange and yellow neon wigs, and high boots of colored “plastique.” Mugging is only one of their primary past-times. Well-done solo and ensemble singing delights us, even as plot more than character development is their forte. Funny, racy, flexible, they resemble early versions of Puccini’s Ping, Pang and Pong, of “Turandot,” as well as like the three little maids of school from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado.” Strobe lights, multiple pinks and aquas, and the formidable tree created by Jean-François Revon, center and stir the action.
Tenor and l’altre
Their male counterparts, more or less, are the three male soloists – Endimione, played by tenor Kyle Stegall, tenor Silvio, performed Jacob Thompson, Doristo , performed by Malte Roesner, their often sumptuous registers contrast well with the multiple soprano voices we hear throughout. Stegall’s Endimione is an appealing hero, with an occasional touch of Irish tenor, as he pursues and wins Diana, his voice arcing beautifully in the top register and his acting full of youthful ardor. He makes his first entrance cavorting down the theater’s central aisle, sporting a see-through plastic raincoat. Pursuing him is “l’altre tenor,” the other tenor. His purpose? Revenge for “l’altre tenore’s” killed dog. For us, it barely matters – despite the allusion to Shakespeare’s “Exit pursued by a bear!” (The Winter’s Tale)– but their lyricism aptly pairs with abundant soprano sounds. Even Silvio, who in the last act turns up wrapped in glad wrap, becomes not only oracle and counter to Diana, sings the plot to conclusion. There is no second fiddle status here as Thompson’s performance is well-done.
Roesner’s Doristo gives not only his splendid resonant voice to the plethora of female sound but its weight. And we welcome it. Round and luxuriant, from opening scene, tied by the nymphs-leaves-apples to the Chastity Tree itself, to Finale, when he (yes, he does!) weds the trio of nymphs(!), brings resolution and conviction, and that, despite his own mugging and risqué antics. Not a drop of unnecessary chastity, even in idea, here.
Two fine sopranos cap the cast: Nikki Einfeld and Christina Brandes. Einfeld’s Diana is energetic and well-performed. Never is she without energy, despite each aria’s demands, her perfect round and exemplary top notes – sometimes surprising us with even more coloratura range – are never lacking. Only occasionally, some low tones become garbled. This, however, seems excusable following the extensive and elaborated music preceding each aria. She acts well, in voice, and in face and body – for such a fragile-appearing coloratura, and exudes substantial stamina. After a couple of hours of allegorical silliness, it is pure pleasure to hear her scale the bright notes with intense lyrical conviction. There are shades of the Queen of the Night at moments as well, even with a tinge of a slight shriek or two.
Christine Brandes, garbed in either persona of her trouser roleshows not only acting range and comic control, but lustrous singing. As Cupid she wears a neon pink suit, black vest, mustache-and-goatee, and red pointed wig, while as as his “sister,” she is in burlesque-queen scarlet corset, shorts and enormous breasts nippled with hearts. Although her voice’s richness is less the point in the production than her characterization, its intrinsic beauty of round tones, claret-like depth, and flexibility are more than moving. Clearly, whether comic or poignant, she has the whole crew in hand, even as she gets into the lascivious play singing with shine and conviction at the same time. A fine performance.
Director Mark Streskinsky’s “Chastity Tree” doesn’t stop for a moment, with wild antics, continuous stage business, details always specific and well-executed, providing a spirited theatrical adventure from top to toe. Even if the music by Y Soler (he was a contemporary of Mozart and wrote around 65 operas) remains more supportive than dynamic, it services the action and vocal expression. Maybe the Vienna of the time, 1787, required a constant stream of activity for its entertainment. The recitatives nearly relieve us from the stimulating display, offering a quieter and reflective moment. The far-greater “Don Giovanni” uses these for character development and perspective, but Y Soler and Da Ponte give us “flat” characters, who we listen largely to figure out what is happening, and/or why.
Even if this is Da Ponte, it is not Mozart. Not by a long-shot. But “The Chastity Tree” in West Edge Opera’s production, aims at a full-blooded comic romp, and, by the end, we leave satisfied with that, if only occasionally lifted into the realms of some lovely sound and pearly beauty.