For a while it was the hottest ticket in town, the town being Vienna in 1787. And why not? It had everything — a saucy libretto by Mozart's favorite collaborator, Lorenzo da Ponte, concerning a bunch of horny nymphs and swains doing some heavy breathing on a secluded island. The music, a seemingly endless supply of sweet and graceful tunes, was the work of prolific Spanish composer Vicente Martin y Soler.
"Diana's Garden," as the opera was titled, could have run forever — and maybe should have. But after a couple of seasons it disappeared and spent the next two centuries gathering dust. The work has been staged in a few cities lately, and now the intrepid Minnesota Opera is putting on its production at the Ordway Music Theater.
The production is lively and fun. It probably won't convince anyone that "Diana's Garden" is a great piece of work. The characters aren't interesting enough to give the opera any real stature. It was meant simply to titillate and charm — never that simple a goal, actually — and exudes charm even today, though director Peter Rothstein and his team have given the story a contemporary slant, aiming to make it more provocative and certainly racier.
Da Ponte's libretto, liberally trimmed for this production, draws on pastoral tales and Greek mythology. It's basically a battle between Amore (Cupid) and Diana, goddess of the hunt and virtue. Attended by her three Nymphs, Diana rules the island and guards the magic tree, a symbol of chastity and an enemy of all things sexual. (In an amusing touch, designer Paul Whitaker has the tree looking pathetically barren and emaciated. Nobody, I guess, likes a prudish tree.) To restore the natural order of things, Amore brings three youths to the island to woo the maidens, and he engages a shepherd to make Diana fall in love.
Rothstein draws from several periods but places the action in urban America in the 1950s, a time, he says in a program note, "of clearly defined gender roles and expectations," which means (at least for women) sexual repression and chastity before marriage. With this idea in mind, Diana, wonderfully portrayed — and sung — by Leah Partridge, is made up to look like Pat Nixon with touches of Phyllis Schlafly and June Cleaver. When we first encounter the Nymphs, they're sneaking cigarettes, as if they were coeds lighting up in the dorm at Bob Jones University.
Rothstein makes the connection between sexual repression and violence explicit — Diana aims her rifle at anyone who thwarts her — but surely, in having her use the rifle as a sex tool, he takes the idea at least an inch too far.
Whitaker's set, the interior of a rundown monastery — its walls covered with cracked plaster — effectively conveys the idea of an old, corrupt, patriarchal moral and social order giving way at the end of the opera to the sexual revolution of the '60s and the restoration of a more natural order. Costume designer Alice Fredrickson provides a pungent image of fecundity: flowers bursting out of the costumes of Diana and Endimione, the shepherd.
The cast is uniformly strong. Partridge actually stopped the show on Saturday night after her fervently sung first-act "rage" aria, and she nicely conveyed Diana's vulnerability and confusion in the final scenes. Adriana Zabala was a smart, fetching Amore, and the three men — Craig Colclough (Doristo), Alek Shrader (Endimione) and David Walton (Silvio) — were in top form as singers and actors. The three Nymphs were portrayed at the same high level by Alexandra Razskazoff, Gina Perregrino and Nadia Fayad.
Presiding in the pit, Michael Christie propelled Martin's graceful music with a shrewd sense of pace, and Jonathan Brandani deftly played the continuo part on harpsichord.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.