Opera Review: The Comic Ravings of a “Madman” — Opera As Political Pastiche

The performance’s excellent musicianship and many amusing moments were at the service of a relevant evening of commentary on the lighter side of the current news cycle.

On Behalf of a Madman, staged by Grand Harmonie. Staged by Arts at the Armory, Somerville, MA, April 27 and 28.

A scene from the Grand Harmonie production of “On Behalf of a Madman.” Photo: Grand Harmonie, Facebook

By Katrina Holden-Buckley

Grand Harmonie’s On Behalf of a Madman is an ambitious pastiche opera. It is made up of a Mozart heavy collection of arias in a story line that is populated by outlandish versions of contemporary political figures. According to the group’s promotional video, director Julia Mintzer was inspired, in part, by a New York Times editorial about former Press Secretary Anthony Scaramucci that compared him to his namesake commedia dell’arte character and that cast other characters at the White House in a similar light. The presentation on April 27 served up considerable highlights —  outstanding singers and ensemble along with a salty lineup of comedic surprises.

Grand Harmonie is a group dedicated to working with period Classical and Romantic era instruments. The arrangements for this piece were done by member Yoni Kahn based on the idea of a “harmony band,” a 19th century reduced ensemble of wind instruments concocted for those who couldn’t afford to see an opera on stage. The ‘band’ for this production was made up of a group who clearly have worked closely and collaborate well together. The set was minimal: the band was the focal point onstage, the performers singing on either side and downstage of the musicians. The dialogue was in English, the arias in their original Italian. There were loosely translated supertitles with new character names substituted for the originals, and the addition of colorful language.

Despite the piece’s title, extracted from a line in Clemenza di Tito, On Behalf of a Madman wasn’t an overt Trump parody. The President was certainly supposed to be Trump-like, but the piece was less focused on his famous ego, the rallies, and the tweets and more on the self-serving machinations of his West Wing staff. The piece’s commentary emphasized the Machiavellian means needed to reach a ‘higher’ goal. The White House is in crisis mode, attempting to recover from the gaffe of a leaked staff party video, which contains glimpses of drunken debauchery unbecoming of the administration. The staff’s goal is to transform decadence into a celebration of camaraderie in the West Wing and to discover the source of the leak. A White House aide is married to an anchor for Fox News, further complicating loyalties and a “family values” agenda.

The production’s book is full of quick-witted, relevant dialogue by Charles Ogilvie; its punchlines were not lost on the Friday night crowd. That said, the comedy (wisely) does not tackle divisive political issues. The administration’s focus in the opera is on passing a gambling bill. This serves as an approachably innocent platform to explore the right’s conflicting faiths: Christian piousness versus profit-making. A particularly effective comedic sequence: The Senate Majority Leader’s, “La Vendetta” (from Le Nozze di Figaro) made for a particularly effective comedic sequence. Inserted in pauses throughout the aria were the Press Secretary’s bizarre answers to imaginary questions from the Press, which included a display of the Secretary’s fabulous new pants and the location at which he had purchased them.

Like the current administration however, this opera’s absurdity goes on too long and the lack of musical variety becomes tiresome. All the corrupt personal agendas and the various sexual advances end up lessening the stakes regarding who leaked the staff party video. By the end, the revelation of the culprit is not particularly memorable. The opera from which most of the evening’s music was excerpted was Mozart’s most political, Clemenza di Tito. Thematically, the arias chosen for each scene were often interchangeable (I.e.; “Insert another revenge aria here”). Bawdy as 18th century librettists and composers could be, nearly every aria and ensemble chosen focused on the steadfast instead of the seductive. With the romantic plot twists, the story line could have been strengthened thematically with more varied arias, which the canon does offer. Some Rossini and Donizetti excerpts were also featured, so fans of well-sung Classical and Bel Canto were compensated for the opera’s thematic repetition and somewhat excessive length and meandering plot line.

The singers here were some of the finest voices that can be heard in Boston during this busy spring opera season. Soprano Laura Bohn, as the Strategist, boasts a crystalline-voiced soprano who sparkled particularly well over ensembles. But her New York accent wasn’t convincing and seemed unnecessary (technically the accent was fine — the consonants were just too soft to convey a New York style of speech). As the Aide, Vera Savage contributed a resonant mezzo that has mastered the entire range; she facilitated the coloratura in Mozart’s challenging “Parto Parto” beautifully. David Kravitz, as the President, did not disappoint with his full-voiced baritone and gift for fast-paced buffoonery. Patrick Cook, as The Press Secretary, has a large-voiced ringing tenor and a flair for comic timing, apt skills for the character. A pregnant (in real life) Dana Varga was News Anchor Stacey Hellson, a broadcaster who touted family values and her growing family (her website: Staceyfromhell.com). Varga had a commanding presence and her arias were full of vocal luster. Paul An’s deep gold bass voice impressed; his portrait of a slimy narcissist fit right into the bass character archetype.

The performance’s excellent musicianship and many amusing moments were at the service of a relevant evening of commentary on the lighter side of the current news cycle. Now, if only our current leadership in Washington D.C, could move out of Opera buffa mode.

Katrina Holden, soprano, has appeared with Boston Lyric Opera, Odyssey Opera, MetroWest Opera, and Connecticut Lyric Opera, as well as in concert throughout the country and abroad. A graduate of The New England Conservatory and Muhlenberg College, she has written for Boston Singers’ Resource, Classical Singer Magazine, and The Theatre Times.

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