Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble Festival 2018 Review: La Cifra

Salieri’s Work Given Side-Splitting Treatment by Team

By Logan Martell

Mention the name Antonio Salieri and one can’t help but to imagine the rivalry with Mozart portrayed in the film “Amadeus,” creating an image of a composer less-favored or even cast aside. While Salieri did enjoy a successful career during his lifetime, even directing the operas of the Habsburg court, his works have unfortunately not lasted well to the present day. Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble’s American Premiere of Salieri’s “La Cifra” offers audiences a rare treat brought back from ages gone by.

In the words of director Brittany Goodwin: “There are certain things about the theater that are timeless because there are certain things about the world that are timeless. Audiences have gathered their pennies and headed to see a show in pursuit of entertainment for centuries now, be it in the streets with trunks and wagons or a fully furnished theatre. Historically, theatrical attendance is highest in times of political and economic unrest. There is something so comforting about escaping the troubles of the day for an hour or two and getting lost in another time and another place. From this communal need, the art form of Commedia dell’Arte was born… It has been nothing short of thrilling piecing together this American premiere. Such a kinship is formed when a group of people come together to make something new. It certainly was a ‘code’ we had to crack, but we did it together, and that is the euphoria of the theater. Timeless.”

The Show Itself

Dell’Arte Opera’s production of “La Cifra” was uproariously funny throughout. While some performances of opera buffa rely solely on the libretto to obtain their laughs, Goodwin’s direction packed as much humor as possible into nearly every interaction between characters. During arias and ensemble numbers, characters onstage that would normally be frozen instead were highly active, often emoting their brewing thoughts and suspicions in regards to the growing game of deception around them.

The set itself employed limited props and furniture to great effect, such as ladders that could be used in lieu of a tree for Leandro to climb up during the hunting scenes, and providing a height from which servants could hang anything from laundry to heraldry. One gag used little more than a large canvas painted cartoonishly as a door to represent locked gates when Fideling, Leandro, and the servants feverishly dig for Lord Clerval’s hidden documents. As Rusticone and the cast clamor to enter, the ensuing ensemble number saw them popping out from behind the door to trade lines with those inside the garden. This sense of staging reached a manic peak at the conclusion of the first act, following the flying passions, and flying bullets, of the hunting scene. An approaching storm forced the characters together to seek for shelter; as the lights flickered and thunder crashed, the huddled cast found themselves at the mercy of servants showering them with bits of Styrofoam while others blew fans at them. All of that combined with the tumult coming from the orchestra was enough to draw thunderous laughter from the audience.

Brillant Leads

As Milord Fideling, Timothy Stoddard balanced the absurdity of the opera’s events with a mercurial temperament. After gathering the townsfolk together to aid in the search for his betrothed, he sweetly appealed to them with promises of riches and reward before instantly outlining the pain and suffering reserved for those who impeded his passionate quest. His interactions with Eurilla, while undoubtedly tender, still bore plenty of humor; most notable was when Eurilla, after realizing her emerging affection for Fideling, demurred away from his longing gaze. “Do my eyes instill fear in a young woman?” Stoddard asked softly before turning away himself, only to return wearing spring-eyed glasses which dropped and bounced as he continued the lines of his recitative.

Opposite Stoddard was Rachel Barker as Eurilla, a shepherdess unknowingly of noble blood. Earlier scenes built her up as something of an ingénue, including an aria which featured no less than five curtsies. This soon changed in the best of ways during the hunting scene when she picks up a tossed rifle and shoots the boar that frightened the other hunters, leading to the chorus singing her praises as Barker swaggered and gloated over her kill. After this she displayed the assertiveness needed to stand up to, and even grapple with, Lisotta over who would be the one to marry Fideling. When Rusticone makes a final gambit in telling Lisotta she is Fideling’s betrothed, Eurilla’s crestfallen aria “Alfin son sola… Sola e mesta,” was something of a tender triumph; for a production where the cast has embraced their roles as caricatures, this moment of gently coming to peace with grounded hopes was nuanced and highly endearing.

In the role of Rusticone, Angky Budiardjono was onstage for most of the performance, the crafty shepherd driving much of the plot in his machination to marry his ward Eurilla. Budiardjono carried himself well through the sheer amount of physicality required from a highly duplicitous character in a deliberately over-the-top production. While Budiardjono met the vocal demands of a basso buffo, he surprised by being able to use his falsetto to mimic his daughter and mock her romantic delusions. Worth mentioning is when he pops his head through the curtain during Fideling’s aria “Quelle sembianze amabili,” to vocally and dramatically undermine the tenor’s romantic moment. This brand of agon that Angky delivered was best captured in his obfuscating aria “L’anno mille settacento cinquantotto,” where he left Fideling and Leandro with no meaningful answers and at their wit’s end.

More Brilliance

As Lisotta, the daughter of Rusticone, Allison Gish was the very image of exuberance. Believing herself to be the woman Fideling seeks, Lisotta did everything in her power to seal the deal and wed the nobleman, all the while outdoing the advances of the lowborn and lovesick Sandrino. The jubilant tone in Gish’s mezzo-soprano served well to draw the eyes of the cast away from her sister, and later, rival Eurilla. A moment I felt encapsulated the character came when Lisotta and Eurilla first learn of Fideling’s search for his betrothed, Olympia. When Eurilla asked if there were any such women who matched the image of noble beauty they were told, Lisotta brightly cried out: “Whore! There’s me!”

Finishing up the cast were Jay Chacon as Sandrino, and Stephen Steffens as Leandro. Sandrino is very much a Pierrot-type of character, as seen from his large-buttoned costume and down-on-his-luck nature as he pines for Lisotta. Chacon’s portrayal was highly entertaining throughout, especially his duet with Lisotta “Un abbracio idolo mio,” and his treatment by the rest of the cast helped to establish their personalities early into the performance. Often overwhelmed, Sandrino’s gag of hyperventilating into a paper bag worked best when the storm begins to gather around the cast, and Chacon’s breathing nearly matches the frightening winds. As Fideling’s friend, Leandro, Steffen’s supportive tenor made for a mostly-trusty right hand. While more than capable of backing up Fideling in his quest, his cowardice during the hunt in the forest allows Barker’s Eurilla the chance to blossom into a more courageous figure. Steffen makes his own advances towards Gish’s Lisotta towards the end of the second act with the cavatina “Eccomi a piedi tuoi.” After he implored her to settle for second-best, this number was followed by Lisotta’s aria “”Non vo gia che suonino pive, sompogne, o pifferi.” As Gish soared away with listing her desires, Steffen delivered from the background some saucy dance moves in a more indirect strategy to woo her.

Digging for Treasure

Dell’Arte’s production of “La Cifra” seizes upon the overlooked gem composed by Salieri and penned by Da Ponte, making its American premiere both extravagant and delightfully absurd. It’s remarkable that a work so old can be re-discovered and made into something that is also new, and serves as proof for the number of unknown operatic treasures that have fallen into obscurity over the years. Lovers of opera will not want to miss the remaining performances of “La Cifra” on August 22, 24, and 26, 2018.


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