Funny music is notoriously hard to write, and comic opera is one of the trickiest of any artistic genres to pull off. There are blessed few operas even in the standard repertoire that are genuinely funny, not just amusing, and even fewer among modern operas. The modern approach seems generally to be to take a clever or even actually funny libretto and accompany it with zany music. Such is largely the case with John Musto's Bastianello, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. Musto writes skillfully and gratefully for the voice, but the two-piano accompaniment is almost incessantly manic. The vocal lines, even when the music is slow, are usually accompanied by running eighth or sixteenth note figures. In small doses the music can have a Poulenc-like wit (the trio "Life, life…so sad, so sad…" for instance), but the nearly relentlessly busy music loses any humor it might have had for lack of contrast. The moments that do break the rush of notes, such as the beginning of the unaccompanied pseudo-Renaissance quartet, "Behold the maiden blushing," and the lovely finale are a pleasant relief, leaving the listener wishing for more such open, breathing spaces.
Campbell's over-the-top libretto for Lucrezia, based on Machiavelli, is a riot. William Bolcom sets it with obvious glee, responding to the outrageous text with zesty music to match, and the ending even manages to be honestly moving, almost profound. Bolcom creates meaningful, recognizable musical structures that build dramatic momentum while gently mocking standard operatic conventions. The opera is set in Argentina and Bolcom colors the score with tangos and other Latin-tinged dances. His text setting is exceptionally fine, subtly witty, and elegant. He has so skillfully drawn the characters and etched the situations that listeners are likely to lose themselves in the opera's silly machinations and be touched by the satisfying resolution: the blossoming of true love. Sopranos Sasha Cooke and Lisa Vroman, tenor Paul Appleby, and baritones Matt Boehler and Patrick Mason are superb singers and actors, investing their characters, especially in the Bolcom, with humanity and sly wit. Pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier provide accomplished accompaniment. The sound of the live recording is more than adequate and the singers, thanks to their excellent diction, the composers' expert handling of the texts, and the engineer's wizardry, are always clearly audible and understandable. The New York Festival of Song, which commissioned the pieces, should be proud; one out of two isn't a bad record at all, especially considering the genre, and it has given birth to a hilarious short opera that shows every sign of becoming a modern classic.