It’s been almost a year since Becky and I were able to get out to the Minnesota opera together. One of our favorite “stars aligning” parts of winter is when the opera and Winter Carnival in St. Paul are going on at the same time. It’s a blast to see the ice sculptures in Rice Park before heading inside for a musical evening. This year’s warm weather seemed to lead to fewer sculptures for the Winter Carnival, but the six that were there were fun to see. They also lit up Landmark Center with snowflakes!
The opera this winter was “L’arbore di Diana” or “Diana’s Garden.” The opera was created by contemporaries of Mozart. The composer Vincente Martin y Soler and the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte were kicking around Austria at about the same time as Mozart and Salieri at their heights. In fact, Lorenzo da Ponte wrote three librettos for Mozart – Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan Tutte. Diana’s Garden premiered in Vienna in 1787 and was very popular in its day. It’s a bit reminiscent of plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream with nature and tricksters and punishing deities. Since that time though, this particular opera faded into history until recently.
This opera doesn’t rely much on plot. Basically, three dudes end up on a magical island where Diana rules. Diana, Greek goddess that she is, is super concerned about chastity and will reign terror on any man who tries to get with her three nymphs. Her go-to move is turning a man into a tree. Armore (Cupid), god of love, isn’t having this. He/she prods the men into acting on their urges and stirs shit up.
So the plot is a bit repetitive – Diana is angry, guys run away, guys stay for love, lather rinse repeat. One of the guys then goes after Diana, who falls in love, too, thus ending this vicious cycle. I wondered how it would be for that guy for the rest of his life living with someone who could end any argument by turning him into a tree. The songs also follow the plot’s pattern “Danger! but Love!”
Though the plot may be threadbare, Opera is more about execution on the theme through music and staging.
Once again, Minnesota Opera’s art design is insane amazing. As a pastoral opera concerned with nature and featuring a ginormous tree straight out of Eden and just as judgy, the whole thing simultaneously takes place in a 1950s-era drawing room with uncomfortable looking tables, chairs and other parlor accouterments, like a rifle collection that Diana is all too happy to point at the men. Her outfit is also straight laced business woman/50s-era homemaker. So lots of tension between this repressed 50s motif and the outdoorsy tree and pastoral art painted on every inch of the ginormous walls. One impressive set of revolving and lifting doors has Diana the Huntress on the back.
The set seems a bit bare bones at first, but throughout the two acts, little unexpected flourishes keep adding depth. The apples on the tree light up, then light up in different colors, smoke rises from the roots, leaves appear. During a couple love songs, an avalanche of rose petals drifts to the floor. Other artworks lower down from the heavens at various times during the performance. New, symbolic holes are broken in the room’s walls as Diana’s perspective on love is forever shifted. Her outfits also shift to a more flowy night shirt and finally to a floral dress (late 60s flower child!). Becky said I kept making noises – gasps of delight as a new awesome thing happened.
The music! As someone who is admittedly very new to opera, I don’t get why this one hasn’t been done more often. The overture alone was a delight – a tripping tune that gets you amped up for the wonderments to come. My favorite came early in the first act. Endimione, one of the men, describes Amore to the others in such beautiful language and tone – it’s a hymn to beauty, and it was the most affecting piece of the night, and the first one to get applause.
The rest of the music keeps up the energy as alliances are made, abandoned, changed throughout the course of the opera. I began feeling the time in the middle of the second act, but perked up again as the opera came to a close with the cast walking off into nature.
This is the sort of opera that people new to opera should try – light plot, just a bunch of outstanding music and delightful visuals that fill the cavernous space of a stellar venue like the Ordway. No need to worry about “getting it” or missing anything other than a good time. In the several years Becky and I have been taking in Minnesota Opera, we’ve only had one bad experience – and that was simply due to the dark nature of the material. It’s always fascinating, open to moments of sheer beauty, and a great time out.