Ornamentation was very popular during the baroque and classical eras. Musicians were expected not only to play what a composer had written on the page, but to add their own notes and phrases, embellishing, enhancing and improvising.
Violin virtuoso Joseph Bologne doubtless did it all the time when playing concertos and sonatas back in the late 18th century. So perhaps it's appropriate that Minnesota Opera should take the concept to another level with Bologne's opera "The Anonymous Lover."
For its first fully staged opera before live audiences since early 2020, the company has taken a fairly minimal script and score and ornamented it considerably. It introduces as characters the composer and the novelist whose work he adapted, stretches out the dance sequences and tosses on slapstick, pratfalls and a host of other old-school comedic devices.
Yet the whole thing adds up to only 82 minutes of pretty insubstantial opera. While Bologne wrote some lovely and lively music for "The Anonymous Lover" — especially in women's arias — there's such a paucity of plot and character development that future productions should probably pair it with something similarly brief and not try so hard to pad the scant material.
Granted, Minnesota Opera deserves a hearty bravo for being the first major American company to offer a fully staged production of the lone surviving opera by this fascinating figure, a slave's son who became a cause celebre in France. He's certainly deserving of the tribute paid to him by setting this production in his native Caribbean and having the composer himself be a statue come to life who observes the action from a balcony.
And Bologne's music is treated with tender care. As music director of two very popular Parisian orchestras, it's no surprise that orchestral writing was his strong suit, and conductor Christopher Franklin and the Minnesota Opera Orchestra bring out all of its vivacity and beauty.
But Bologne also had a way with vocal music, and the arias of soprano Symone Harcum make a powerful case for his artistry. She has a voice of strength and subtlety, her tender attacks ideal for classical-era repertoire. Also shining forth is the full-bodied voice of mezzo Zoie Reams, while Leah Brzyski seizes her opportunities to soar vocally and steal scenes as a lusty bride.
Alas, tenor Carlos Enrique Santelli is too quiet for the orchestra as the lovesick friend, while Aaron Keeney isn't given many chances to shine, save during a peppy Act Two duet with Harcum.
What plot there is centers around a widow's close male friend who has been sending her admiring letters and is trying to work up the nerve to suggest they take their friendship to a different level. She's on to him from the opening scene, so no real twists await us, just a lot of kvetching, clamoring and visual comedy.
So you won't miss much if your attention wanders to the production's eye-popping design, from Stephan Moravski's multi-tiered, pastel-hued set to Ari Fulton's flamboyant costumes to Mary Shabatura's lovely lighting.
But the comedy never really clicks. Some gags of vaudeville vintage give the impression that director Maria Todaro seeks a zany screwball spirit. But that kind of comedy is usually propelled by pace, the action swift, the repartee crisp. This production has little of that, managing to make an 82-minute opera feel much longer.
'The Anonymous Lover'
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25-$225, available at 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. firstname.lastname@example.org