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REVIEW: Lush Diana’s Garden (Minnesota Opera)

After a season with the opulence and drama of Romeo and Juliet and the epic scale of Das Rheingold, Minnesota Opera rang in 2017 with more delicate garden fare. L’arbore di Diana, or Diana’s Garden as it is billed in English, is a late 18th century comedic opera with music by Vicente Martín y Soler and a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. With Michael Christie conducting and Peter Rothstein directing, this production of Diana’s Garden serves as a nice palate cleanser for the January blues as well as a showcase for both engaging and virtuosic performances from the cast.

Martin y Soler was a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – a Spanish composer trained in Bologna, Italy and transplanted to Vienna  in 1786, just as Mozart was making his own return to composing opera. Martin y Soler, Mozart, and Salieri had more than a few things in common – all three teamed up with the same librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, for example. da Ponte, never one to turn down good business, worked on the libretto for Don Giovanni at the same time as his libretto for Diana’s GardenDiana’s Garden was a great hit in its day, but – like Salieri’s operas – vanished from the stage after the composer’s death, and did not find its way back into regular performances until the 1970s. Rothstein’s production creates a sense of excitement at rediscovery, while at the same time making the characters and their struggles immediate and real for the audience.

Diana, in this case, is the Roman goddess Diana (sung by Leah Partridge), and her garden is on a sequestered isle where her nymphs (Alexandra Razskazoff, Gina Perregrino, and Nadia Fayad) must forswear love under pain of death. With some meddling from the mischievous Amore (better known as Cupid, sung by Adriana Zabala), three mortal men (Craig Colclough, Alek Shrader, and David Walton) find themselves caught in the middle as Amore tries to get the chaste goddess to give in to the power of love. Guess what happens—yup, that. But what fun getting there.

Photo by Dan Norman.

To begin with, Minnesota Opera’s Diana’s Garden is not on a mythic island populated with gods and demigods; Paul Whitaker’s set recalls museum storage or the attics and closed off rooms in an old mansion, decorated with neoclassical murals and paintings, crumbling bricks, and old furniture, and Alice Fredrickson’s costumes place us somewhere in the 1950s. The resulting transparency effect of one era bleeding through into the others offers a clever visual backdrop for the action.

Partridge’s Diana is an icy Hitchcock blonde, entering in a crisp blue suit with an elegant afghan hound, looking every inch like Grace Kelly. (Well, a more animated and emotive Grace Kelly, that is.) The nymphs, on the other hand, are sexually frustrated school girls, sneaking off to a back room to share a cigarette and rag on their mistress. As mere mortals, the men start off the grubbiest in their jeans and work shirts, and Amore gets to shapeshift into as many versions of the same red rosy print and the audience can take.

The cast are each impressive in their own right, each making the most of their moments to shine. As the shepherd Endimione, Shrader provides a luscious and clear tenor, fit for a matinee idol. As Doristo, Colclough’s sonorous bass-baritone easily fills the theater, and his surprising and expressive interpretation brings about more than a few of the night’s real laughs. The unquestionable high point of the evening had to be Partridge’s first act aria, complete with vocal pyrotechnics, martini mixing, and gun cleaning. (Who doesn’t want a good belt of gin before the final coloratura, eh?) As Amore, though, Zabala steals every scene she is in, embodying both the vocal artistry and physicality that marks this production.

Men have been known to get tied up in the presence of goddesses. Photo by Dan Norman.

It is this physicality, physical comedy, really, that moves Diana’s Garden from what could merely be a droll and tepid revival of a not-really-funny-but-we-know-it-used-to-be opera with a pretty predictable plot to a show that evokes real surprise and delight as it goes along. Whether it is singing while crab-walking, bike riding, tying oneself to a chair, or numerous other small details in each performance, by the evening’s end, the cast will have you utterly charmed.

Lydia Lunning