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Opera Distillery brews up new take on Mozart classic

This should not work. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Pizza, popcorn and beer served by staff shuttling in and out during the performance. Opera. Opera? Yes, grand opera in a most unusual setting. Where is the solemnity? The dignity? The reserve that accompanies the typical opera experience? The bizarre sets and extreme costumes? Not at the Great American Playhouse, 13005 N. Oracle, on a Saturday afternoon on Pi day.

Is it possible to strip opera down to a minimum, without losing the essence? Soprano Elizabeth Wells, the company’s official Brewmeisterin, says yes and created Arizona Opera Distillery to demonstrate her commitment to the concept by staging this minimalist version of Mozart’s Cosí fan Tutte, singing the role of Dorabella.

Instead of long info-dump recitatives, we have a genial Factotum, tenor Dennis Tamblyn, who fills us in on what happens between the arias and ensemble pieces we love and cues the audience when it’s time to applaud and when it’s time to wait a bit. Instead of a full orchestra, we have a pianist to accompany the singers. Instead of full sets and costumes, we have some chairs, music stands with minds of their own, and the strangest excuse for ‘Albanian’ garb ever. There is even a black tricorne hat that has so much personality, I expect to find it listed in the cast of characters.

In place of of forbidden food and drink accompanied by glares at anyone who dares unwrap a cough drop, we have a full menu of treats and nearly invisible wait staff who manage to keep us supplied without disturbing our concentration.

No way this can work. And yet it does. The small, intimate setting means the audience is close to the singers. Very close. We see and hear every nuance of the musical interpretation. For the cast, that means the vocal equivalent of an aerialist working without a net. There is no opportunity to mail it in. We are almost close enough to touch them. No forgiving distance of space between us and them to cushion a missed cue or mistake. The result of such intimacy is palpable. We know and they know we know that there is no place to hide.

This makes for extreme pressure on the singers, and maximum pleasure and excitement for the audience. Every musician is knowledgeable and experienced. They know when to mug a bit, and when to play it straight. Throughout the performance, it is apparent that they know their stuff and each other. These are not amateurs who have decided to get together to put on a show in the barn, but professionals who want a venue to show what they can do without the need to compete with out-of-town talent for the roles they love to sing. The cast listing show how much their paths have crossed and recrossed. They know and trust each other enough that they can pull this off with only one rehearsal. They know how to make music together.

And what glorious music it is. Every time I convince myself that I love Mozart primarily for his ensemble pieces, he drops a gorgeous solo on me, and I fall in love with him all over again for the solo pieces.

One of the deepest pleasures for an audience is watching performers who are enjoying themselves. I was reminded of that just the night before when I saw the same spirit of playful engagement at the concert by the Rock Bottom Remainders at the Tucson Festival of Books. The quality of musical ability in the two groups aren’t even in the same universe, but the joy underlying the performances is in both.

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The first name I recognized was Alexander Tentzer at the piano. The last time I saw that name, it was coupled with Israeli cellist Amit Peled. It was a great pleasure to encounter him in this casual setting.

Kimberly and Michael Chaffin (Fiodiligi and Ferranda) are familiar names. They sang the soprano and tenor solo parts at last December’s Community Messiah Sing-In. Knowing that they are a married couple adds to the piquancy of the seduction scenes between their characters.

I know baritone Greg Guenther (Guglielmo) personally, as I am a student in his private voice studio. Aside from hearing him sing the bass solo at the Community Messiah Sing-in two years ago, this was my first opportunity to see him in a full performance, and it was worth the hour’s drive across town. His rich, warm lyric baritone reaches out and embraces the audience.

The snake gets all the lines, and the villains and clowns get to steal the show. If soprano Erika Burkhart ever tires of the opera world, she could make a living as a comic actress. Her body language and expressive face command attention whenever she is on stage. Bass-baritone Lazo Mihajlovich is completely credible as a bored retired officer who has nothing better to do that meddle in the love lives of his unfortunate friends. He brings the necessary gravitas and bored malice to the role of Don Alfonso.

The company’s next offering will be Donizetti’s Elixir of Love this summer. Something to look forward to and worth driving to Catalina to see. Bring the kids, bring your friends. This is opera for everybody, and a great way to introduce the art form to someone who might be intimidated by a full-blown production.

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