Although a popular and internationally reputed composer in his day, Antonio Salieri lives on in the public mind almost solely due to his role as the antagonist in the 1984 film “Amadeus.” Few of his works are still performed widely, least of all his operas. This state of affairs seems particularly unjust after viewing the Lowell House Opera’s charming production of Salieri’s “La Grotta di Trofonio.” LHO’s take on “Trofonio,” which runs through April 2 in Lowell’s (impressively altered) dining hall, succeeds despite vocal and other challenges due to an abundance of energy, enthusiasm, and good-natured humor.
“La Grotta di Trofonio,” directed by Roxanna K. Myhrum ’05, tells the story of Aristone (Ethan Sagin) and his two daughters, Dori (Sarah Mitchell) and Ofelia (Charlotte L. McKechnie ’15), who are both preparing to be married. Their would-be husbands mirror the girls’ natures perfectly; Artemidoro (Andy J. Troska ’17) is as studious and serious as Ofelia, while Plistene (Andrew Sokol) shares Dori’s vivacity and love of fun. A run-in with renowned philosopher Trofonio (Nyiko Ngobeni) and his enchanted personality-altering cave throws everything into disarray, with predictably laughable results.
Vocally, the cast excels at moments and struggles in others; McKechnie and Mitchell perform more strongly than their counterparts. McKechnie’s voice cuts through space beautifully when she hits her upper register—an ability she showcases in “D’un dolce amor la face” and “E un piacer col caro amante.” Mitchell also shines vocally, although her vibrato occasionally seems to take charge of her voice. Her best moment comes at the start of the second act, when she laments Plistene’s sudden change into a stiff, officious would-be philosopher (“Un bocconcin d’amante”). Mitchell’s performance of the aria mixes mischievous humor and a clear, confident delivery of Salieri’s flowing melody with endearing results.
Troska and Sokol, on the other hand, have a harder time executing vocally. At times, both find themselves locked in competition with the orchestra to be heard. Troska is particularly susceptible to this tendency. On some of his high notes, his voice becomes truly impossible to detect (although he manages these notes increasingly well as the opera goes on). Sokol also has moments in which his voice fails to fill the performance space: Mitchell effectively drowns him out for much of the duet “Ne lo stato conjugale” in the first act. However, whatever difficulties Troska and Sokol have vocally they make up for with exuberant stage presence. They infuse their characters with a generous amount of hyperbole, a choice that might seem over-the-top in a different production but suits Salieri’s farcical comedy perfectly (and becomes even funnier when Plistene and Artemidoro’s characters change diametrically).
Surprisingly, stage presence and vocal ability come together most strongly in the opera’s remaining two cast members, Sagin and Ngobeni. Both possess rich, full baritones that seem particularly powerful set against Troska and Sokol’s tenors; during Trofonio’s crucial moments, Ngobeni’s voice holds its own against the orchestra at its full sway. Sagin manages to achieve both resonance and agility in arias like the rapid-fire “Trofonio, filosofo greco—coro di spiriti?” He commands each of his scenes, not only with his vocal strength but also with his humor and charisma onstage.
The opera’s staging exhibits the same mix of verve and occasional clumsiness as the cast’s performances. The set, which is partly a columned courtyard and partly Trofonio’s rocky lair, is ingeniously divided by Mark Buchanan’s lighting, and it is impressively multidimensional for having been constructed within a dining hall—Trofonio’s cave is particularly well-done. Screens on ceiling-high banners framing the stage display the English translation of the libretto in a more visible and convenient way than in some professional opera houses. There are also moments of amateurishness, though: At the beginning of a recent night’s performance, the crew couldn’t find the correct stage lighting for several minutes as the audience waited in increasingly awkward silence. In addition, the surtitles sometimes fail to keep pace with the music, robbing certain moments of their comedic or emotional impact.
While “Trofonio” is not without flaws, none of its missteps prevent the show from being utterly enjoyable. Its zest and cheerfulness, paired with Salieri’s lyrical music (and the goofy-but-engaging storyline), make it an incredibly accessible performance. LHO’s production—the U.S. debut of “Trofonio”—makes a convincing case that Salieri’s operas are worthy of further attention.—Staff writer Lien E. Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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