Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
Contact the Author                  Colorado Opera Network


February 2, 2017

One good thing about traveling to see operas is that if you are retired like me and have the time, it gives you a nice destination in a place you otherwise would probably not think of going—like St. Paul, Minnesota, in the dead of winter.  And if you love trains, you can do it all on Amtrak, crossing the snowy Rockies, the even snowier Sierras and the snow-up-to-here Cascades—while looking at all that snow and not shoveling it.  Not to mention the desolate high plains of North Dakota and Montana, where I am writing right now, snug in a warm Amtrak sleeper room, watching miles of frozen tundra (well, not really tundra) pass by the train window.  And at the destination, you get an unusual opera to warm the winter doldrums, and, in this case, in addition to the opera, the St. Paul Winter Carnival with fantastic ice sculptures, hot cinnamon almonds, cheese curds (if you like that sort of thing), and thick, creamy wild rice soup.

Into this world of white we came for performances of Vicente Martín y Soler’s opera buffa, L’arbore di Diana, which Minnesota Opera called Diana’s Garden, even though “Diana’s Tree” might be a better translation.  This opera was so new to me that I had never even heard of it, although I vaguely knew that Martín y Soler was a rival of Mozart and very popular in the late eighteenth century.  One joy of seeing something like this instead of, say, Così fan tutte for the umpteenth time is learning a little more and about opera history and, hopefully, discovering a new, viable work.  In this case, happily, both of those goals were realized.

Minnesota Opera is an adventurous company that, along with a healthy dose of standard works, programs contemporary operas and (rarer in this country) revivals of forgotten operas which are worth seeing.  This year, in addition to the revival of L’arbore, they are offering a world premiere of a comic opera by William Bolcom, one of the more ‘difficult’ of modern composers, called Dinner at Eight.  Their audiences expect something new along with the beloved classics, and they get it.

Martín y Soler, born in Valencia, Spain, started his opera career in Naples, which was ruled by members of the Spanish Bourbon family, and then traveled via northern Italian towns to Vienna, where he set up shop in Emperor Joseph II’s opera-loving court, the same one that fostered Mozart.  Here, he composed several works, including two immensely popular ones—Una cosa rara and this L’arbore di Diana, both to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s great librettist for Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte.  Mozart does homage to Martín y Soler in the last act of Don Giovanni, when the band entertaining at Don Giovanni’s final dinner party plays an excerpt from Una cosa rara (A Rare Thing—the rare item being a woman’s virginity).  L’ardore di Diana was premiered in 1787, one year after Mozart’s Figaro, and its popularity far outstripped Mozart’s opera, with 65 performances in its first year vs. 35 in Figaro’s first year.  It is easy to see why: the tunes are simple and eminently listenable, many of them folk-like in the manner of Papageno’s music in Mozart’s Magic Flute.  They are the kinds of things that music publishers could issue within days and amateur musicians could take home to play and sing at the piano.  The plot of L’arbore is satire and parody, without the deep investigation into human foibles that you find in Figaro or Così

In fact, this opera is an obvious influence on The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute, both in terms of the libretto and the music.  And so another piece is put into the fascinating puzzle of opera history, which is itself a window into European history.  If you are like me, you tend to think of Mozart as a towering genius whose work was unique and far beyond the other composers of his time.  Hearing Martín y Soler’s opera, one realizes that his work was in many ways typical of his time and was heavily influenced by others, even if he remains head and shoulders above his contemporaries in his ability to penetrate the human heart. 

After Vienna, Martín y Soler went to St. Petersburg, where he composed operas in Russian, one with a libretto at least partially by Catherine the Great.  Then it was on to London, where he had a successful career, writing more comic operas to librettos by da Ponte, who had fled to London after being chased out of Vienna.  One of those, La capricciosa corretta was based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.  From London, he returned to St. Petersburg to teach, and he died there in 1806. 

Da Ponte’s life was even more interesting and international than the composer’s.  Born in Ceneda, Italy, to a Jewish family which converted to Catholicism, Da Ponte became a priest in Venice—and a confidante of the notorious Casanova.  But he wasn’t much into his vow of chastity: after his mistress bore him three children, he was exiled from Venice and went to Dresden, where he obtained an introduction to composer Antonio Salieri, and so it was off to Vienna, where he quickly became the most sought-after librettist of the day, writing witty and intelligent works for Mozart, Salieri, Martín y Soler and others.  In Vienna he took a new mistress, and she bore him four children, but when Emperor Joseph II died and Leopold II took over, da Ponte’s ‘immoral’ ways were no longer tolerated, and he was kicked out of Vienna.  After deciding it would be safer to bypass Paris at the time of the French Revolution, he moved to London, opened an Italian grocery, started an opera company and again wrote libretti for Martín y Soler.

Like the current US President, da Ponte went bankrupt, and, hounded by debtors, he sailed for America, where he settled down in New York.  He became a US citizen at the age of 79, opened a grocery store, and founded the first opera company in New York when he was 84.  Although the company went bankrupt in two years, the opera house he built and its company are the direct ancestors of today’s Metropolitan Opera.  As his various business ventures foundered, da Ponte turned to that last refuge of scoundrels: he became a professor.  In fact, da Ponte was the first professor of Italian literature in America, at Columbia University.   He was also the first Jew to teach there—and the first priest!

L’arbore di Diana is a scarcely veiled satire on sexual mores cast in terms of classical myth (showing off da Ponte’s erudition).  The “Diana” of the title is the goddess of chastity and the hunt of ancient mythology and her rival is Venus’ son cupid, or Amore.  The point of the story is to teach the chaste and sexually repressed Diana and her three devotees, the nymphs Britomarte, Clizia and Cloe, that sex is much more fun than virginity and that chasing studs is much better than going around shooting stags—a lesson that the roué da Ponte would certainly have  approved.  Chosen by Amore to help in the lesson are three “shepherds,” Doristo, Silvio and Endimione.  Classical myth is conflated and parodied by da Ponte because here Endimione is a lusty young man who happens to strike the chaste Diana’s fancy and convince her that her ways are contrary to nature (rather than being the handsome lad whom Selene, the Moon goddess falls for—in either case, he is irresistible).  Doristo and Silvio, are far from the elevated and effeminate shepherds of the pastoral tradition, but rather lusty country boys who look like they could have stepped right out of a production of Oklahoma!  in this production.

Diana’s “tree” dominates her “garden,” and is replete with golden apples; if a maiden strays from the path of chastity, the “tree” will launch a barrage of apples at her, killing her, i.e. she will be appled to death.  Da Ponte must have loved the allusions to the apple trees of mythology—the one in the Garden of Eden and the one in Greek myth whose prize apple launches the Trojan War.  All of those apples have sexual connotations, and there are many double entendres in the libretto too.


Set Designer Paul Whitaker (who also did lighting) took the allusions a Freudian step further with his set, which was kind of a mishmash of periods and styles: the action is placed at the gates of a monastery falling into ruins (get it??—the crumbling redoubt of chastity).  The tree is a dead-looking, scrawny affair with a long limb hung with those menacing apples; at the end, when sex conquers purity, the tree suddenly sprouts greenery and the apples turn red (get it??). Large, pastoral paintings in Victorian style come and go on wires, suggesting another period when sex was repressed.  The nymphets and Diana are dressed by Costume Designer Alice Fredrickson in 1950’s outfits, still another era famous for repressed sexuality.  The girls wore skirts with all those crinolines and have hour-glass figures created by the bouffant skirts and those atomic-bomb shaped bras that women wore in the Eisenhower era.  Diana herself was dressed in an elegant blue tailored suit with a pencil skirt and fitted jacket with peplum, right out of the pages of Vogue.  In another scene, she was dressed in an elegant blue peignoir and silk robe, which she uses to entice Endimione, with whom she is now besotted. 


I think I would have preferred the “delicious garden” that the libretto describes to the mixture of Freudian symbols that Whitaker gave us, but the action by Director Peter Rothstein was always apposite, fast-paced, in tune with the music, lively—and usually very funny.  At least the audience thought so, laughing almost constantly; one lady behind me at one of the two performances I saw guffawed so loudly that she kept me from hearing the music at times.  There were more phallic jokes than you could—well—shake a stick at.  Diana has a show-stopping aria in Act I, “Sento che dea son io,” filled with baroque coloratura ornamentation (think of the Queen of the Night’s arias in The Magic Flute, which indeed this aria inspired).  I have seen many attempts to find action to complement the long roulades and ornaments of baroque coloratura, but Rothstein gave soprano Leah Partridge details of shaking a martini in time with the music and cleaning a rifle—first reaming it out and then polishing the barrel—that were so obviously sexual that it brought roulades of laughter from the audience.  And this to a text where she is expressing rage at her nymphs’ failure to live up to their vows of chastity!  Da Ponte would have loved it. In short, I found the sets and costumes ok, but the stage direction was marvelously comic.


As for the performers, they were consistently good singers and great actors.  Except for Diana’s role, the music does not demand a great deal from the singers in the way of agility or dexterity, and in that role Partridge managed to bring off every last roulade and high note, and in that rage aria mentioned above, she did it while mixing and drinking a martini (actually it was the ’50’s drink, the gibson, the one with little onions instead of an olive) and cleaning her gun.  All of the singers were young, athletic and looked their roles—the svelte Partridge as Diana and Alexandra Razskazoff, Gina Perregrino, and Nadia Fayad as the sexy, pony-tailed nymphs Britomarte, Clizia and Cloe.  Adriana Zabala was a wonderfully pert and charming Amore (a mezzo-soprano role full of graceful melodies).  The men were all very fine too, youthful, handsome and good singers.  Craig Colclough sang Doristo, the seediest and lustiest shepherd of the three; Alek Shrader was the muscular Endimione with a ravishingly sweet tenor voice; David Walton was a funny Silvio.  Every single singer gets at least one aria in this opera, and the protagonists get two.  But best of all are the many duets and ensembles, so reminiscent of Mozart in his comic works—if Martín y Soler hadn’t gotten there first.  For instance, the wonderful duet between Amore and Doristo “Occhietto furbetto” is very similar to the Zerlina-Giovanni and Zerlina-Masetto duets in Don Giovanni, which was produced the same year as L’arbore di Diana.


Michael Christie was a perfect conductor who was so shy he didn’t even take a bow in the pit.  The overture started before you knew he was there!  Jonathan Brandini played the continuo accompaniment (and gave a brilliant, amusing and informative talk before the opera).

I don’t know how Minnesota Opera manages it, but this unknown work played to full houses at both performances I attended at the Ordway Music Theater (1,900 seats).  Not only that, but the audience included many young people and middle-aged people as well as older folks.  Most opera companies tend to be terrified of trying something beyond the tried and true A-B-C’s of opera (Aida, Boheme, and Carmen).  We tend to think of the works we know and love as being the best, which is why they constitute the “standard repertory.”  But that is not necessarily true.  There are many reasons that contribute to a work being denominated a “classic” or “standard,”  and some of it is pure, dumb luck.  Minnesota Opera proves annually that a plucky regional company can fill the house with something as unknown as this opera by Martín y Soler, and bring great pleasure to an audience open to discovery.  Vicente Martín y Soler/Lorenzo da Ponte’s opera had them laughing and humming in 1787 Vienna; it did it again in 2017 St. Paul.  Other companies should be so adventurous.  In our case, it was worth a 4,000 mile, round-about journey to get there—a “destination opera” for sure.  L’arbore di Diana was great fun and a grateful anecdote to troubled times.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network


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