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UCSB Opera Goes ‘Backstage’ Just for Laughs

Donizetti's matchless melodies and uncanny stage sense are on full display in Viva la Mamma!

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“Mamma” (Emil Cristescu, right) and the reigning diva (Alissa Favero) square off in the UCSB production of Viva la Mamma! (Tony Mastres photo)

Starting Thursday, the UCSB Opera Theatre will offer four performances of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera buffa Viva la Mamma! With stage direction by Katherine Arthur, musical direction by John Ballerino, costumes by Stacie Logue, sets and lighting by Mark Somerfield, and orchestra by pianist Stella Hsu, Viva la Mamma! stars Emil Cristescu as “Mamma,” with the diva “Corilla” played by Annie Thompson and Alissa Favero, Corilla’s husband “Stefan” by Daniel Tuutau, the tenor “Gugliemo” by Adam Phillips, the composer “Biscroma” by Stephanie Turner, the “Impressario” by Andrew Padgett, and the librettist “Prospero” by Erik Bell.

The original title of the piece was Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali, and the difficulties of rendering that into coherent, let alone euphonious, English, led to it being rechristened Viva la Mamma! for its 1963 revival — an international success — and for most subsequent productions. Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali was first performed in 1827 at the Teatro Nuovo, Naples, and may well be the first “backstage” opera. (The first “backstage” comedy, of a nonmusical type, was probably 1671’s The Rehearsal, by George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, although Hamlet’s scenes with “the Players” in Shakespeare’s tragedy of 1601, have something of a backstage flavor to them.)

The conventions of the “backstage” genre are all in place in the opera — the harassed writer and director, the impresario worried about production money, the vain and demanding diva, the language-mangling foreign tenor, the domineering stage mother who wants a bigger part for her daughter, and so on.

A local Italian opera company rehearses a new work, Romulus and Ersilia. The prima donna makes constant, ever more extravagant demands; the Russian tenor can’t quite put his words together with the music, the rest of the cast squabble and threaten a walkout. Things get exponentially worse with the arrival of Mamma Agatha, mother of one of the singers. As noted above, Mamma Agatha is sung by a baritone. That is how Donizetti wrote it, which makes a humorous reversal of the “pantaloon” role — “Cherubino” in The Marriage of Figaro; Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier — when the male ingenue is sung by a female. Mamma Agatha thinks her daughter should have her own aria. She also thinks herself qualified to instruct the director about stage action; the composer about orchestration. Nevertheless, it all works out, and to the tune of Donizetti’s matchless melodies and uncanny stage sense. The beauty and purity of the young voices could go without saying, except that a reminder is always helpful.

Viva la Mamma! will show at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. Sunday in UCSB’s Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. Tickets are $15 for the general public, $7 for students, and will be available at the door. Click here for more information about Music Department events, or call 805.893.7001.

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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