The A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, formerly the National Opera Company, now affiliated with the NC School of the Arts, gave its Raleigh run-out performances of the current season’s production on the evening of May 9 (seen by this reviewer) and the afternoon of May 11 in the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater of the BTI Center. They chose Mozart’s little known first opera, La Finta Semplice , K.51, composed when he was 12 years old to a libretto by Marco Cotellini and based on a play of the same title by Carlo Goldoni.

It is a sort of standard, run-of-the-mill 18th century comedy of manners with the usual themes and turns of plot involving love and money in the worlds and lives of aristocrats and servants. There’s a billeted soldier (an unwanted and unwelcome guest), a rivalry for the affections of a woman, a feigning of lack of understanding, a threatened duel, a planned elopement, the theft of the family fortune, etc., etc.

There are seven main singing roles telling the story over three acts. The nobles are a pair of bachelor brothers one of whom, Cassandro, sung by David Schmidt, is generally ill-tempered and the other, Polidoro, played by Jonathan Dale Walker, is simple-minded, together with their sister Giacinta (Alice Dawson). Their maid is Ninette, sung by Michelle Trovato. They are lodging the captain Fracasso (Antonio Abate) and his manservant Simone (Krassen Karagiozov). Fracasso has become enamored of Giacinta and Simone, of Ninette, but they know that Cassandro will surely not cotton to any of this, so they plot to soften him up by getting him smitten with Fracasso’s sister, Rosina, sung by Emily Amber Newton, who arrives to pay him a visit, and with whom Polidoro also becomes besotted. There was a marvelously staged scene involving Rosina’s portrait in Act I.

The performance was given in a kind of disconcerting hybrid version with the arias sung in the original Italian and the recitatives given in an English translation by James Allbritten, Music Director (who is also a singer) and Conductor of the all-student orchestra, made up of students of all ages, including some of high school level as well as adult. Some of the translations were a bit anachronistic, making the hybridization even more jarring: there was Ninette’s mention of wanting a “low maintenance” husband, for example. But these anachronisms produced laughs from the audience, which was clearly the desired effect and proved that the listeners were paying attention and enjoying what they were seeing and hearing. Projection of the supertitles was a bit unpolished and some were slightly out of sync, but on the whole they worked well, shown on a screen in a large gilded frame like other empty ones that were suspended from above in the truly striking set designed by Travis George. It also featured stationary columns of transparent marbleized fabric and suspended sections of balcony railings, all with Cupids, only two of which were alike, seated, lying, or perched on them. The doorless door frames were also gilded, and the backdrop was like a François Boucher painting of a palace garden with trees, statuary, and his signature blue sky. The whole was an attractive and lovely modern evocation of the baroque. Elisa Richards’ costumes were authentic looking, too; those for Rosina were downright stunning. Katie Ward did a fine job with the wigs and makeup; there was some clever letting-down of Rosina’s wig in one scene.

All the voices were generally good and their owners were on the whole up to the demands of the roles both in singing and acting. Their diction was good in both languages. Newton and Trovato were particularly outstanding singers, with the latter putting in the most convincing performance in the acting department and Walker (who is also a jazz pianist/guitarist/vocalist and a composer!) deserving an honorable mention in that category for his portrayal of the simpleminded brother. Schmidt seemed the least convincing actor; perhaps the role was too far removed from his real personality? Stage director Will Graham gave all of them plenty to do and kept them moving around, a feat for a story that is more talk than deed, yet little of the movement seemed stilted or inappropriate. The orchestra was also generally good, although the slow sections of the Overture could have used a bit more rehearsal and polish. Allbritten’s harpsichord accompaniment of the recitatives and David Pulliam’s playing, in the orchestra, were also remarkably fine.*

The printed program contained cast and orchestra personnel lists, a good synopsis of the plot, succinct (for the most part) and informative artist bios, and the production staff list. It did not, however, make clear which of the two singers listed for the role of Polidoro we were actually hearing.

The work itself, while not standing a chance of replacing Le Nozze de Figaro in the repertoire, is amazingly mature, musically, for an adolescent composition. The seeds that would germinate into Cosí and Nozze are visible. The ensemble arias that conclude each act prefigure much later choral works and were impressive and delightful. This is not a work to be brushed off, not one about which you might say, “Well, I’ve heard that; I don’t need to hear it again.” It bears repeated listenings, and it is good that the AJFOI decided to dust it off and give it such an amazing presentation. Many of the singers are at the graduate school level, have studied with big-name artists like Erie Mills, Suzanne Mentzer, and Benita Valente – in the case of Dawson, for example – and have considerable experience, according to their résumés.

While the NOC’s regular presence in Raleigh is missed by many, it cannot be denied that its transformation and removal to the NCSA in Winston-Salem has allowed it to blossom and move up “to the next level” of quality productions as we might say, but as Mozart presumably would not have said, though he might well have enjoyed this one.

[*Corrected 5/12/03 p.m.]