Just as it seemed that contemporary American opera had sworn off melody completely, composer John Musto brings us The Inspector. Paired with Mark Campbell's brightly comic libretto, Musto's score sweeps the hilarious plot along, punctuated by clever musical references and familiar tunes.

Courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera
Courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera

The story is based on Gogol's play The Inspector General, but instead of Tsarist Russia, the story is set in Mussolini-era Italy – an excellent match for Musto's musical language. The Mayor of Santa Schifezza has learned that an inspector from the new regime in Rome is coming to his town. The inspector may, in fact, already be there – incognito. The Mayor assembles the town's directors and gets them to clean up their acts. For instance, the director of health (and cemeteries), Malacorpa, is instructed to stop selling body parts. She is joined by the other town directors: an illiterate director of education, a torture-happy chief of police and a priest who's been pimping the nuns.

Meanwhile, Bobachino and Bobachina, the twin mail-carriers, notice that there is a newcomer in town, along with a man they assume is his valet. Believing that the newcomer is the inspector, the Mayor rushes to the hotel where they are staying and begins a campaign of bribery, inviting the men to his villa. The men are only too happy to accept his bribe and invitation, since the (initial) bribe will pay their outstanding hotel bill. Not only have they not been sent from Rome, they are political dissidents on the run from Rome. Once they pay their hotel bill, they need to raise enough money to get to Palermo where a boat to America awaits them.

Judging from conversation in the lobby, there was some concern that this satire would not have enough weight to please the Boston audience. However, the melodic tunes – which could easily have veered off the tracks and into light opera territory – came off as surprisingly sophisticated in the hands of fine singers. Any lingering fears for its success were hopefully allayed by the gales of laughter. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, thanks to a terrifically funny libretto and great comic timing. As the Mayor's wife, Sarelda, Victoria Livengood was brilliant. Her aria about shoes was one of the evening's most memorable moments, evoking a character that was half Miss Piggy, half Imelda Marcos.

The jokes fly fast and furious, with a couple of pauses for a love affair between an underappreciated girl and her intellect. The “Inspector” does end up filing a report, and, while it's not the one anyone was expecting, it is as concise and insightful as anything the real inspector could have gleaned.

The sets by Erhard Rom are simple and effective. A series of 180-degree turns of the center stage quickly transformed the space from the town square to a meeting room, a seedy hotel room, the Mayor's villa, and back to the town square. These fluid and seemingly effortless scene changes allowed the story's momentum to build, keeping the audience engaged and attentive. The on-stage trio of accordion, tuba and mandolin was also a nice touch, evoking 1930s Italy.

The Inspector was commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. It is the second opera Musto and Campbell have written for Wolf Trap, following their Grammy-nominated Volpone. It is a clever and quick-witted diversion that's approachable and entertaining – a very nice surprise ending indeed.