UT Opera Theatre’s noodling, canoodling hit comic highs in ‘Secret Gardener’

Harold DuckettArts 865, Feature

Mozart’s “The Secret Gardener,” an update of his original “La Finta Giardiniera,” K. 196, written in 1775 when Mozart was only 18, has been performed in inventive places like the West Side Community Garden in New York and the Atlanta Botanical Garden 

But no one has brought the suggestion of the double identity of a garden/pool party until UT Opera Theatre staged it at the Bijou Theatre earlier this month with a wildly inventive set of a neon-colored flower garden made from pool noodles. 

The double-identity notion fits because Sandrina (delightfully sung by Kathryn Shepas in the performance I saw) is really the Marchioness Violante Onesti hiding out as a gardener on the estate of the Podestà (mayor, sung by Brad Summers), who is in love with her (at least who he thinks she is). Sandrina is none too thrilled by the Podestà’s attempts to woo her. 

To complicate things even more, her fellow garden worker, Nardo (Logan Campbell) is really her servant Roberto, who has fallen in love with the Podestá’s servant Serpetta (Beth Stovall). But she does her best to ignore his attempts at affection. 

During all of this, Count Belfiore (terrifically sung by Wayd Odle) shows up to be with his betrothed, Arminda (well sung by Emily Johnson), the Podestà’s niece. But Belfiore makes the mistake of confessing his lingering love for Violante, whom he had earlier stabbed in a fit of anger, leaving her for dead. But she survived, and when he was gone she ran and went into hiding under her new identity. 

Arminda has double entanglements herself. She spurned Cavalier Ramiro (well sung in a pants role by Sarah Beegle). But he keeps showing up anyway even though she is engaged to Belfiore.  

Set to Mozart’s music, conducted by Kevin Class, the tale lilts along as the relationships sort themselves out after Belfiore realizes just how familiar Sandrina looks. After she confesses her disguise, they jump into each other’s arms again. 

Brad Summers’ Podestà may not have won Sandrina’s heart, and he may not have had the strongest voice on stage, but his stage presence, utilizing a walk straight out of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, is one of the comic highlights of the show.  

Wayd Odle as Belfiore and Brad Summers as the Podestà. Photo provided

So is the scene in which Wayd Odle’s Belfiore confronts Summers’ Podestà over their mutural attraction to Sandrina/Violante. Summers’ move falling down the steps and rolling onto his back like a whipped chihuahua was hilarious. Both he and Odle gave their characters the right combination of seriousness and comic aptitude. 

These scenes, along with bonking each other on the head with the gigantic pool–noodle flowers and slipping in and out of the fog-surrounded set in Act II, showed how effectively this cast took to stage director Scott Skiba’s vision for this production. 

As opera students in this age of opera when one’s acting ability is as important as one’s vocal skills, sometimes more so, this cast of singers “got it.”  

Collectively, the singing was strong and clear by almost everyone. 

Projection designer Brittany Merenda’s images were just the right combination with the colors and goofy tone of the pool-noodle flowers. 

Because of both the cost and production time to construct traditional sets, projected images are the wave of the future in opera. They offer endless creative styling possibilities, especially when combined with the approach of UT opera director James Marvel. 

His productions are consistently don’t-miss events. 

UT Opera Theatre’s schedule for upcoming operas can be found here. 

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