Thursday, April 26, 2012

Don't misunderestimate The Inspector

"I am not a crook!" - the political rogues' gallery of The Inspector. Photos: Erik Jacobs.
I know, I know - the words "opera" and "laugh riot" rarely meet in the same sentence.

But Boston Lyric Opera's The Inspector, the new work by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell, might make you re-think all that.  This is simply one of the funniest shows of the year. Actually, it IS the funniest show of the year, period.  Boston Lyric Opera always knows how to throw a hearty comic punch (last year's Agrippina proved that), and they land so many this time around that I and my partner were practically on the floor at some points.

Of course if you think, as some local critics do, that an opera should be thought of as a concert in which the performers happen to walk around, then this kind of praise is almost a liability.  An opera shouldn't be just a good time, they insist; it shouldn't be a whip-smart satire of the Bush administration.  Lord, no - operas shouldn't be that!

Indeed, some people at opening night seemed to agree about that satire of the Bush administration (some of the most expensive seats were empty after intermission).  Perhaps more than any of the arts, opera depends for its funding on finance execs and white-shoe law partners (at least the "Log Cabin" partners, if you know what I mean) and I felt BLO was taking a big risk with the openly blue-state cast of Campbell's razor-sharp libretto (which was inspired by Gogol's ageless satire of small-town corruption, The Inspector General).  Technically Campbell has shifted the scene to Sicily (which allows for more bel canto) - and there were, indeed, a few broad, affectionate Italian jokes - but obviously the script was really set in the various South Texas, South Florida, and South Alaska burgs where numbskull Bush scions and Republican stooges are blighting the landscape in their "exile" from the White House.

So - if you're a Republican, beware this horrifying partisan screed!  But if you're a thoughtful person with a moral center, you are inevitably a Democrat, and so you should run out and buy a ticket immediately.  (Because the show only runs through this weekend.)

There is some bad news, though - John Musto's music isn't as challenging or as rich as it might be;  I can't refudiate that.  The score is certainly pretty, and even quite witty - in fact, it's almost too much of a sophisticated, Broadway-style pastiche; by the end of the first act, you might be forgiven for thinking the composer had set his sights on operetta rather than opera.  But fear not - from the start, the second act is far stronger musically (it opens with a melancholy trio for mandolin, accordion - and tuba!) as Campbell's text begins to limn the sad awareness of universal corruption that undergirds Gogol's  original scenario.  (So in the end, I think Musto should not be misunderestimated.)

The ruling class shows just how classy it is in The Inspector.
And it's in the second act that the performances, which have been funny throughout, begin to open up into something deeper, too.  Soprano Meredith Hansen sounds great as the Mayor's daughter (she's the one sweetheart trapped in this lousy town) - but it's her acting performance that is almost heart-breaking in its mix of comic smarts and tragic feeling; our best dramatic actresses couldn't do better.

Hansen is all but upstaged, however, by mezzo Victoria Livengood as her crass, calculating mama; Ms. Livengood is a world-class comic talent as well as a Met-level mezzo, and she expertly crosses Imelda Marcos with Carol Burnett to create an indelibly, almost brutally hilarious performance as, in her husband's words, "the shrewdest of shrews - who'd screw for new shoes."  In fact, I'll call this one right now - there will be no one, and nothing, funnier than Ms. Livengood on a Boston stage this year.  (And she's a terrific mezzo to boot.)

Although to be honest, this crowd is crowded with good singing and clever comic turns.  As the genially corrupt mayor of "Santa Schifezza," ("schifezza" is Italian for "filthy," btw) Jake Gardner (at top) knows just how to hang onto our sympathy by making his sleaze almost sweetly naive.  And from the moment Dorothy Byrne launches into an aria with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, you know she's something special, too (she's a Minister of Health who moonlights at the local funeral home!). But there are still more comic cameos sharper than the point of a satirist's quill: David Cushing all but beams stupidity as the torture-happy chief of police, who's "as dim-witted as he is sadistic," while Michelle Trainor nails the Montessori-addled educator who insists "Kids learn bestest when they teach theirselves!"

If you haven't noticed yet, there is a slight gap in the cast - as "Tancredi," the likably opportunistic Inspector General himself, Neil Ferreira is appealing, but hardly compelling, and the usually reliable David Kravitz sounded fine as his sidekick, but didn't seem to have found his comic groove by opening night.   But down in the pit, conductor David Angus did well by the clever fizz of the score, and stage director Leon Major always kept the production light on its feet.  You left the The Inspector thinking it may be no great contribution to the musical repertoire, but that it might open up a new angle on how we think about contemporary opera in general.  For why shouldn't up-to-minute, bare-knuckle satire be a commonplace on the operatic stage, particularly when it's as close to comic perfection as The Inspector?

1 comment:

  1. Cleary you and I were at the same production -- Messers Globe and Phoenix went to something else entirely. I had a terrific time and know that Mr Musto can do more consistently good musical work from a one act of his at Gimmerglass last summer.