John Musto’s “Inspector” opera to take a comic look at wartime intrigue

April 18, 2012 at 12:29 pm

By Keith Powers

Boston Lyric Opera presents John Musto's comic opera "The Inspector," beginning Friday night at the Shubert Theatre.

In addition to its well-known historic carnage, Mussolini’s Italy was awash in subterfuge, suspicion, and backstabbing. Composer John Musto has somehow found a way to make a comedy out of it all, and Boston Lyric Opera is presenting his opera, The Inspector, to conclude its season.

The work, which opens Friday evening at the Shubert Theatre, is loosely based on the 19th-century satire The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol. “There was no way I could write funny Russian music,” Musto says. “So I moved it to Sicily.”

The opera debuted last year in the Barn at Wolf Trap. The libretto is by Mark Campbell, who also wrote the text for Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night, which just won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Since then, Musto, Campbell and director Leon Major went back to the score, revised some scenes, added some new ones, and generally worked to make the comedy tighter.

“Comedy is like a Swiss watch,” Musto said from his home in New York, a day before coming to Boston for the final rehearsals. “Or maybe like assembling a ship in a bottle. It’s so exacting; everything has to work precisely. If you’re writing a comedy, there are set-ups and punch lines, long-range situations and loads of things that you don’t normally think about when you write music. Pacing is everything—simple things like leaving the room after a laugh line.”

The BLO production features baritone Jake Gardner as the small-town mayor, mezzo Victoria Livengood as his calculating (and shoe-loving) wife Sarelda (“a cross between Sarah Palin, Nancy Reagan, Eva Peron and Imelda Marcos,” Musto says), and tenor Neal Ferreira as Tancredi, the man mistakenly identified as the government inspector, and who sets the opera’s intrigue in motion. Major directs, as he did at Wolf Trap, and David Angus conducts.

Angus reveals how Musto’s The Inspector came to be BLO’s season-concluding work. “In the summer of 2011 I was conducting his Later the Same Evening at Glimmerglass,” Angus says. “I was really taken with it. Just a few days later we were looking for something for the Lyric season, something American, and this just played into our hands.”

“It’s a clever, witty score,” he says. “Not only are there references to American songwriters from Randy Newman to Bernstein to Copland, but there are beautiful borrowings from people like Janacek to Italian folk music. The Flying Nun shows up, and he even let me know that the Alaska state anthem gets worked into it.”

“The words are set without repeats,” says Angus, “and so that really lets the text do the storytelling. The words are orchestrated very intelligently. Every little nuance is marked in the score. It’s a neat piece of writing—that’s the word the singers have been using in rehearsal.”

Despite all the work behind the scenes, and then all his re-writing on top of that, Musto is sure that opening night will still bring surprises. “You don’t actually see how the piece works until opening night,” he admits. “I think in general this production is less slapstick than Wolf Trap, more serious, if that’s the right word to use. I’m very curious to see the staging.”

“But I’m not nervous on opening night. It’s wonderful to see, when people take what you’ve written and sing and perform. When you write a tragedy, or something heroic, the people take it in, and there’s applause, but you’re not really sure. With this, if they’re not laughing, it’s not a comedy. At least in that regard the impact is immediate.”

Boston Lyric Opera presents John Musto’s The Inspector at the Shubert Theatre, April 20-29. Visit blo.org or call 866-348-9738.

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