Farce on a Texas Ranch

John Bender on August 7, 2007
Mythological absurdities, deadly rivalries, and over-the-top emotion — topped by the 20-minute death throes of oversize sopranos — are familiar opera cliches. But these cliches often ignore the bubbling stream of comedy that flows through the works of Mozart, Rossini, and Donizetti, and even those of Wagner, Verdi, Massenet, and Puccini. Thomas Pasatieri rode that stream into the 21st century with The Hotel Casablanca, premiered last weekend in the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center by the stylish and graceful young singers of the Merola Opera Program. Pasatieri gained the audience's laughter with his own libretto, based on Georges Feydeau's dazzling farce A Flea in Her Ear, but set on a Texas ranch in 1948. The nearby Hotel Casablanca, a seedy but up-and-coming establishment, provides that bedroom necessary for the final hilarious confusion. A unit set, by director Richard Kagey, proffered a ponderous adobe background for the lively costumes by Kristi Lynn Johnson.
Jamie-Rose Guarrine (Veronique) and Meredith Woodend (Miss Pooder)

Photo by John Lee

The work serves up two hours of efficient entertainment thanks to its superb source, tight plot, and crisply defined characters. The central married couple — Tom, the successful owner of the Double T Ranch, and Tallulah, his vaudeville dancer bride — echo the Count and Countess in Mozart's
Marriage of Figaro. Feydeau's bed trick takes the place of Mozart's garden trick. A pair of Tom's wandering suspenders, borrowed and left behind at the Casablanca by his philandering nephew Charles, sparks Tallulah's fear that the rancher has been on a fling at the hotel. A flashy Mexican bull breeder, Raul, whose costume appeared ripped straight out of a bad production of Carmen and whose arias were styled musically to match, takes the place of Figaro, while his wife, Lucy, a pal from the heroine's old troupe, is the tricky Susanna. Throw in a fake love note proposed by Lucy, which echoes Mozart's, but is instead sealed with lipstick rather than a pin. Add the hunky ranch manager to that Hotel Casablanca bedroom — with Madame Butterfly and Groucho Marx costumes for Tallulah and Lucy — and you get a royal tangle that proves Tom's and Lucy's fidelity.

Music at Odds With the Comedy

Farce accelerates action. Opera must slow it down for the music to unfold. Mozart resolves this opposition by setting a steady pace, punctuated by episodes of quick, densely textured motion and music, while Rossini builds compulsively to sheer musical frenzy. Pasatieri takes it steady and then pushes the farce into 20 frantic minutes. The score is similarly double in character. Often the musical idiom, which draws on the more portentous strains of Massenet, Puccini, and Strauss, seems out of step with the comedy. Certainly, there is the letter duet opening with literal quotations from Figaro. Echoes of the commedia dell'arte group in Ariadne auf Naxos also crop up in the finale, along with a mocking reuse of the final kisses from Verdi's Otello. But wistful Romanticism becomes the order of the day in Tallulah's big opening aria, in Tom's loving praise of his wife, and elsewhere. The basic musical approach is so eclectic in its style and sourcing that I found myself hard-pressed at times to sort out Pasatieri from his quotations of others. Given that this is an opera for opera lovers, loaded with in-group references, this musical state of affairs may be appropriate. More difficult to explain are the long stretches of exposition in a rather monotonous, accompanied recitative that only occasionally rises to the level of arioso melody. The orchestral writing is highly active and brilliantly colorful — as can be expected from the orchestrator of about 150 Hollywood films — and the arias surge with slightly washed-out Romantic melody. Sad to say, however, the inert score seems little more than an adjunct to the comedy. The overture's drift toward the Broadway style made me wonder if an approach nearer to musical comedy might have been more of an adventure to Pasatieri. Near the beginning, "Everything's Bigger in Texas" pointed in that direction via Oklahoma!, but the comedic vein ended there.

Merola Singers Step Out

Conductor Joseph Illick kept up an intense pace from the overture onward. Tamara Wapinksy pushed Tallulah in the direction of verismo gustiness. Her powerful midrange showed well in the first aria, but the higher-lying notes in her big final scene brought out an edgy, reedy tone. Like some of the other singers, she did not seem quite at ease with her vocal line, as if trying to find more to express than the score had to offer. Tom Corbeil, as Tom, found a touching strain in the music while explaining the magic of love to his nephew. Nathaniel Hackmann, as Raul, obviously relished playing to the hilt the caricatured jealousy of the Latin male, and Paula Murrihy, as Lucy, sparked against him with her soubrettish flounces.
Tamara Wapinsky (Tallulah) and Paula Murrihy (Lucy Perez)

Photo by John Lee

Everyone had at least one aria. Andrew Bidlack's shining tenor marked him as vocally exceptional, while Jason Plourde, as the butler Burton, eased his way amusingly as the facilitator of everything from hangover coffee to drinks in the hotel bar. Meredith Woodend swooped about relaying her dreams as the new owner of the Casablanca, and Jamie-Rose Guarrine charmingly fancied herself in Hollywood fashion as Veronique, the new receptionist.
Andrew Bidlack (Charles Carter) and Jason Plourde (Burton)

Photo by John Lee

Pasatieri's approach seems to fall easy on the ears of opera lovers. His comic effort in Hotel Casablanca brings his eclecticism to the surface as allusion. Could it be both a comedy and a good-natured joke about his own style?