A spirited revival shows "Casanova's Homecoming" by Dominick Argento to be a great modern comic opera.
By LARRY FUCHSBERG, Special to the Star Tribune
Last update: November 16, 2009 - 10:46 AM
What: A new production of Dominick Argento's 1985 comic opera by the Minnesota Opera, with John Fanning in the title role.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue., Thu., Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Tickets: $20-$200. 612-333-6669 or www.nopera.org.
Composer Dominick Argento has been so fundamental to the fortunes of the Minnesota Opera that the company's neglect of his remarkable output (14 operas!) for nearly two decades seems almost scandalous. But their estrangement, if that's what it was, has been put aside with Saturday's triumphant revival of "Casanova's Homecoming" -- a meticulous, spirited production that argues powerfully for the work's place among the best modern comic operas. Written for the opening of the Ordway Center a quarter-century ago, "Casanova" makes a fit vehicle for Argento's own homecoming.
The action is set in Venice in 1754, during Carnival. The fiftyish Casanova, just returned after long exile, falls victim to an elaborate hoax but then turns it to his advantage, netting a small fortune that he bestows as a dowry on his penniless goddaughter. (The historical Casanova was a libertine, con man and prolific memoirist, with a dark side; if alive today, he'd be running a Ponzi scheme. The Casanova of the opera is a charming rogue with a heart of gold, a roving eye and a penchant for none-too-subtle innuendo.) Argento, a singularly literary musician, fashioned his own libretto, ensuring that composer and librettist are always on the same page -- a rare and liberating thing.
"Casanova" is a love letter to Venice (though Venetian elements are unaccountably scarce in this production's décor) and, even more, a love letter to opera itself. The finest scenes in the piece are the opera-within-an-opera of Act 1 (here brilliantly staged) and the lagoon scene of Act 2 -- a thing of high hilarity, in which a pseudo-occult manifestation, rehearsed as a mini-opera, goes wildly wrong in performance, dumping Casanova and the batty Madame d'Urfé in the drink. And the seduction that closes Act 1, with its muted strings and slowly darkened candelabra, is pure Puccini.
Baritone John Fanning sings charismatically as Casanova; his diction sets the bar high for his colleagues. Other standouts are Lauren McNeese's Teresa (the castrato who isn't), Jennifer Casey Cabot's Giulietta, Jean Stilwell's d'Urfé (who might have acted more flamboyantly), John Michael Moore's Lorenzo and Dan Dressen's Marquis de Lisle.
Stage director James Robinson, a former Argento pupil, sagely balances invention and deference. James Schuette's costumes are handsome, Aaron Black's lighting guileful. Conductor Leonardo Vordoni reliably finds the music in Argento's speech-driven rhythms and irregular phrases; the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is a vital presence in the pit.
"Casanova" declines to take itself too seriously; psychological and moral complexity is not its concern. Yet Argento plainly seeks to tell the story of a "new birth" -- of Casanova's rededication, after crisis and disillusion, to his creed (a kind of aristocratic hedonism). In this, I'm not sure he succeeds. But the problem is one that almost any other composer would be thrilled to have.
Larry Fuchsberg writes regularly about music.