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June 15, 2011

Wolf Trap Opera revives rare work by Wolf-Ferrari and gives it a 'Mad Men' touch

If you want to stump your most smug opera-nut friends, just ask them to name more than two works by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari.

If they oblige, chances are their answers won't include "Le Donne Curiose," let alone a plot summation or the humming of a few bars.

This 1903 opera had a brief moment in the sun. Of particular note was the Met's production of 1911, which was brought back the following season.

In both cases, it had the advantage of being conducted by Arturo Toscanini and starring Geraldine Farrar, one of the most popular vocal artists of the day. A New York reviewer declared "Le Donne Curiose" to be "a treasury of brilliant delights, of musical inventions and fancies."

Well, times change, tastes change. Today, this particular example of Wolf-Ferrari's craftsmanship is about as obscure as can be. But that's going to change this weekend.

Putting the Ferrari into Wolf Trap, the indomitable Wolf Trap Opera has dusted off this curiosity and, judging from rehearsal photos (one is at the right, courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera), has given it what promises to be a very cool staging, a la "Mad Men."

Kim Witman, the ever-imaginative head of the company, knew ...

of a couple other Wolf-Ferrari pieces when she started thinking about "Le Donne Curiose" ("The Curious Women"). "But I had in my head that it would require too large of an orchestra for us, so I steered clear," she said.

When she found the score, she noticed that it called for more of a Mozart-size orchestra, a perfect fit for the Barns at Wolf Trap, where the company presents most of its work.

But what of the other components? Were they strong enough to merit reviving an opera that, as far as can be determined, has not had a professional production in this country for nearly 100 years?

The plot "feels a lot like 'Cosi', with just a touch of misogynistic attitudes," Witman said. Based on a Goldoni play, the story centers around, well, curious women. They want to know what their men are doing behind the doors of a no-females-allowed club. A pretty old device, but durable (there's a good "I Love Lucy" episode using the same setup).

Wolf Trap Opera has a great track record of updating works, and the approach for "Le Donne Curiose" seems ideal. "We've moved it to the '60s," Witman said, "pre-NOW. The idea of men retiring to one place with their cigars was still a feature of the '50s and early '60s. Women were just feeling emboldened enough to start asking what's going on."

The new time frame provided a great excuse to go all "Mad Men" with the costumes.

As for the music, Wolf-Ferrari attempted to capture something of an 18th century flavor. "And it has many echoes from the few decades prior to his writing the opera," Witman said. "Wolf-Ferrari's favorite opera was 'Falstaff" and there's much of that in the score. There are Wagnerian gestures in it as well, and, of course, verismo colors. It's a bit of a grab bag, but not in a bad way."

The chance to experience such a rarity ought to be awfully attractive to opera lovers. Performances are Friday, Sunday and June 25.

To give you further incentive, check out Kim Witman's wonderful blog, where I stole some cool videos to post here to give you a taste of both the music and the colorful staging:


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:47 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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