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IU Opera Theater: Arlecchino and Too Many Sopranos

The IU Opera Theater opens their spring semester with a contrasting pair of comedies: Edwin Penhorwood’s "Too Many Sopranos" and Ferruccio Busoni’s "Arlecchino." Guest Kevin Noe conducts, The stage direction and choreography are by Vincent Liotta. Robert O’Hearn designed the sets and costumes.

"Two Many Sopranos" opens in heaven. A basso St. Peter explains to his comical but silent assistant Gabriel that the heavenly choir is so short on tenors and basses that only one of the soon to arrive quartet of sopranos can be allowed in. The sopranos, divas to a woman, each sing. Their styles range from the weight of the Wagnerian through the airy reaches of Bellini like bird calls and even include a sort of Rodgers and Hammerstein scene. Here as everywhere else in "Too Many Sopranos" composer Penhorwood clearly enjoys trotting out his comic take on these over wrought displays. They’re funny, but also do show off some lovely voices. Look for some of these songs to show up in future vocal contests. In a surprising move to unity when the sopranos learn that the problem isn’t too many of them, but too few basses and tenors. A larger percentage of those gentlemen seem to end up in the lower realm. The act ends with a rousing gospel number as the ladies pledge to mount a rescue mission.

Act two of "Two Many Sopranos" opens in hell, or if you will, Hades. The men seem to have arrived for a few musicianly sins and have mild musicianly punishments.. There’s the tenor who woos women and has to listen to recordings of a woman he falsely encouraged . A director is there and he’s condemned to bore everyone. A was bass there for somewhat, but only somewhat darker doings. He’s is forced to learn the viola.. Oddly enough there are no conductors in this lower region. The comic explanation is that conductors were so evil that they made Satan himself look like a boy scout. Throughout "Too Many Sopranos" keeps the singers and orchestra busily cycling through music and dance styles. Gabriel is mute throughout the show, but has many comic turns and even does a mean Charleston. As if four sopranos weren’t enough, Penhorwood can’t resist throwing in a silly charmingly sparkly trouser clad Sandman. Naturally, all comes out well. Though the cast does resolve never to perform opera again Saturday night’s audience clearly hoped that they would go back on that pledge.

Penhorwood’s gentle comedy is paired with Ferruccio Busoni’s "Arlecchino" a take on the comedia del arte. The traditional figures of the clever rogue Arlecchino, the simple dupe, the bumptious doctor and priest, the romantic would be wooer, and the willing wife are all involved. There is fun to be had from "Arlecchino," especially with the aid of three Zanis who play men, women, pieces of furniture and even the front and back of a donkey, but it’s a lean, dark piece that comes from the years just after World War One. A sent-up effort at moralizing in "Arlecchino" is something like "…human’s are naturally good, but their nature seems to conceal it. Interestingly Busoni makes the part of Arlecchino a non singing role. The rogue is an energetically athletic character very much in on the action, but he’s outside the vocal realm of the opera. If, in terms of sweetness, "Too Many Sopranos" is a marshmallow covered with milk chocolate, Ferruccio Busoni’s "Arlecchino" has a tart center covered with extremely dark chocolate.

The IU Opera Theater’s productions of Edwin Penhorwood’s "Too Many Sopranos" and Ferruccio Busoni’s "Arlecchino" play this Friday and Saturday in the Musical Arts Center.

You can find this and other reviews, along with an interview with Edwin Penhorwood on our web site at WFIU dot Indiana dot edu

George Walker

After completing an M.A.T. degree in English at Indiana University, George Walker began announcing for WFIU in 1967. Along with regularly hosting classical music shows, he interviews artists and reviews plays and operas.

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