“Damn the opera business. It offers no honor, pleasure or happiness,” rails the Impressario – a generous-voiced Richard Ollarsaba – at one point in Florian Gassmann’s exuberant dramma giocoso, ironically entitled L'Opera seria. Tonight’s performance in the 18th-century Barn at Wolf Trap during the summer festival was an absolute romp, thoroughly captivating from beginning to end. The decision to juxtapose a contemporary opera house setting with an 18th-century style opera-within-an-opera was a brilliant manifestation of a plus ca change logic. Costumes may have changed but the thespian vanities and rivalries, the toadying and the gossiping, the internecine conflict and the spectacular ego clashes, have not. The world of 2016 is not so far removed from 1769. We recognize the weaknesses to which the world of theatre is invariably prone; it is besides, a merely slightly exaggerated mirror-image of the real world in which the rest of us, prosaic souls, live.

Mane Galoyan (Smorfiosa) and Alasdair Kent (Ritornello) © Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap Opera
Mane Galoyan (Smorfiosa) and Alasdair Kent (Ritornello)
© Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap Opera

Performing tonight were the superb 2016 cohort of Filene Young Artists. As individuals and as a company, they performed with marvelous verve, and a manifest enjoyment of their roles and relationships which was altogether infectious. The intimate barn setting has a generous acoustic, and the singing was excellent, even at times superb. Jonas Hacker’s Delirio was outstanding, the kind of voice to fill a vast opera house. Christian Zaremba, gave a kookily brilliant performance as the chain-smoking dancing master, Passagallo. Clarissa Lyons was the shatteringly self-important prima donna, Stonatrilla (Out of Tune), complete with lap-dog in her oversize handbag. Mane Galayan as Smofiosa (Simpering) came into her own by Act II. Amy Owen’s light soprano and pert presence as the rising star of the company, Porporina (purple-faced), was compelling, and to her belonged the comic high-point of the whole evening, the hilarious dolphin and fish song, where everyone laughed so loud as to rival the music. But what a good complaint! Her mic drop at the end was a killer touch. Alisdair Kent as the narcissistic primo uomo was a little thin on those high As in Act I but was otherwise a compelling peacock.

Jonas Hacker (Delirio), Alasdair Kent (Ritornello) and Clarissa Lyons (Stonatrilla) © Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap Opera
Jonas Hacker (Delirio), Alasdair Kent (Ritornello) and Clarissa Lyons (Stonatrilla)
© Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap Opera

The stage business was quite outstandingly choreographed, an abundance of finely-observed details. All credit to the creative team. From the impresario mouthing his diva’s aria alongside her in rehearsal, instructing her in decidedly ham gestures, to the ever-present backstage hands, a mundane (and silent) counterpoint to the crashingly melodramatic performers, from the four dancers doing entirely different forms of dance to Stonatrilla’s loud warm-up exercises in the wings of the opera-within-an-opera, the tapestry of minutiae was rich, absorbing and terribly funny. In a work which is so much about appearances, costumes are king, and Sally Dolembo’s designs were a visual treat. The Baroque excesses of Act III were contrasted with the varied attire of the cast in civvies, all of them in some form of self-conscious self-construction: cardigan and spectacles for the nerdy composer, turtle-neck and scarf for the artsy director, a creative team between kooky and hipster, Porporina’s bomber-jacketed working-class Pa with sequined ‘Team Poporina’ in pink on the back, two aggressively well-groomed, viciously-stillettoed Italian mamas, and both the established diva and her young contender showing up for rehearsal in the same J’adore Dior t-shirts – surely as awful a humiliation as arriving in the same hat to Ascot.

Act III – the performance of the opera within an opera, L’Oranzebe – brought us  to another level of enjoyment altogether, when the performers’ parents, fans and critics, were strategically placed among us, the audience. Suddenly, we all became part of a full-on 18th-century experience, with loud comments and catcalls, cries of brava, bellissimo and basta, giving way to a rising tide of derisive boos which brought the simply awful Oranzebe to mid-performance collapse. To get a chance to experience opera as a kind of blood sport – 18th-century Italians no doubt had more than a little in common with their gladiator-watching ancestors – was liberating. What a choice irony to make of a stage flop a triumphant success.

<i>Opera seria</i> cast © Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap Opera
Opera seria cast
© Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap Opera

Gassmann’s score, rendered under the baton of Eric Melear, is joyous and undemanding, and in an opera which mocks the clichés of opera, what more fitting than music, conventional in its very excess? I haven’t heard an audience laugh more at an opera ever. Period. Laughter is a tonic at such events, a release from the staid, and when that laughter is both a mark of appreciation of the parody of the very art-form the audience has come to see, and an expression of delight in the performance of it, then we are knee-deep in enjoyment indeed – both mocking and relishing the preposterous art that we know and love and the people who make it happen.