In the woods of northern Virginia, Wolf Trap Foundation has premiered Volpone (The Fox), their first commissioned opera. Based on Ben Jonson’s play of the same name, Wolf Trap’s Volpone, with music by John Musto and revised text by Mark Campbell, consists of eight scenes in two acts running about two and half hours.
In Jonson’s Volpone the foxy main character outwits himself and his downfall moves the satirical play toward tragedy. In contrast, Campbell’s libretto tows a comic line and significantly simplifies the five-act, 38-scene Elizabethan play.
In the first two scenes, Campbell establishes the story of the swindle that Volpone and his servant Mosca (the fly) enact against three scavenging fortune hunters who are appropriately named Voltore (vulture), Corvina (raven), and Cornaccio (crow). Volpone’s scam is to pretend he is dying. He accepts luxurious gifts from these three scavengers as he promises each one that he or she will be his sole heir.
The stakes are increased in scene two as Mosca convinces Corvina to cinch her position with Volpone as sole heir by disinheriting her son Bonario in favor of Volpone. By Mosca’s logic, Corvina’s son would eventually get two inheritances. Next, Mosca convinces Cornacccio to speed Volpone’s death by bringing Cornaccio’s virgin wife, Celia, to Volpone’s bed.
Feeling smugly satisfied, Mosca unexpectedly encounters Corvina’s nauseatingly virtuous son. Without reflecting on the consequences, Mosca tells him that his mother has disinherited him. The final interaction of the scene introduces Mosca to the woman who abandoned him as a small child. Mosca rebukes Erminella whom he recognizes only as a lady of the night. Erminella, the successful madam from Paris who has come back to Venice to look for her son, is an invention by Campbell that he uses to steer the opera’s comedic course.
Act I concludes with the innocents—Bonario and Celia—being thrown in jail. In scene three, Bonario, looking to resolve his rightful inheritance, has taken out his sword to rescue Celia from being raped by Volpone. In the mayhem that follows, everyone in Volpone’s house except Volpone is arrested. Voltore, whose profession is law (Did Ben Jonson create the first jokes about lawyers?), convinces Corvina and Cornaccio to follow his lead to protect their interests in Volpone’s estate. To cap off the courtroom fiasco where the guilty go free, Volpone is wheeled in and promptly dies.
A series of reversals rock Act II. Volpone has only feigned death. Mosca is annoyed but relieved because now they can escape to Genoa. However, Volpone hasn’t finished with his scam. He signs a new will giving his estate to Mosca. Volpone wants to punish the trio of scavengers. Suddenly Mosca, the orphan, is rich and it goes to his head. He tells Volpone to get out.
In the street, the dispossessed Volpone meets Erminella and discovers her relationship to Mosca. Meanwhile, in prison, Bonario and Celia confess their love for each other. The final scene of the opera takes place in court where Bonario and Celia are to be sentenced. Mosca shows up to clear his name and validate the will that makes him heir to Volpone’s estate. What Mosca says clears Bonario and Celia, but makes Mosca libel for perjury. Volpone, disguised as an aged French lawyer, enters the courtroom with Erminella who wears a black veil and claims to be the estranged widow of Volpone. Finally, Erminella rescues Mosca by blackmailing the judges who have all visited her house of “good” repute. The opera ends with Erminella, Mosca and Volpone sailing to Genoa.
Mark Campbell’s libretto is an unembroidered contemporary poetic text that emphasizes comedy. Like Elizabethan playwrights, he employs puns and bawdiness. Unlike the Elizabethans and Ben Jonson, Campbell’s artistic vision emphasizes fun and a light touch devoid of metaphors that invite social, literary, or cosmic commentary. John Musto’s music is attentive to the spoken word and allows the singer to be featured over the music. The music rides the line between lyrical and dissonant. Songs like Volpone’s opening aria to gold and Erminella’s “Where is the son I never knew?” linger in memory more as text and dramatic delivery than as musical rendering. Under the baton of Michael Barrett, the orchestra presented a measured concert that never overwhelmed the singers.
What was remarkable about the premiere of this new opera was its highly polished delivery. The words were audible and understandable in the Barns of Wolf Trap, a 500-seat venue. The players were not only accomplished opera singers, but they were outstanding actors. Joshua Winograde as Volpone not only impressed his audience with his sonorous bass-baritone voice, but he frequently moved so deeply into the fox persona that he became the animal. This accomplished animal mimicking was also true for Ryan Taylor who played the vulture and Jason Ferrante who played the crow. Bravo to David O. Roberts for the transforming but unobtrusive costumes. Working with the elevated stage, Erhard Rom has tilted and tiled the floor in a checkerboard pattern which seems to project the players into the audience, an especially welcome effect since seating in the Barns is not tiered. Using fabric walls that opened into various doorways and windows, Rom should get an award for his economic use of this small stage.