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Updated opera: Production sets story in '60s but keeps original language

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Mariana Mihai-Zoeter, as the maid, stands on a cushion as Blackburn watches.

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Kyle Masson, as Pantalone, and Jeffrey Luksik, as Ottavio, share a drink and talk at the men’s club in “The Curious Women.”

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From left, Shalisha Nason, as Rosaura, Catherine Blackburn, as Beatrice, and Alina Kirshow-Goldman, as Eleonora, plot to find out what is going on in the men’s club in Shenandoah’s production of “The Curious Women.” Dennis Grundman/Daily

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com
WINCHESTER -- Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's "The Curious Women" or "Le donne curiose," based on the 1753 play by acclaimed and prolific Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, comes to the stage at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester for only its fourth large-scale performance ever in the United States.

Straight from its one-day performance at Wolf Trap in Vienna, the opera brings with it director Pat Diamond and the set used at Wolf Trap this summer.

"It's an opera, and the opera is based on the play by Carlo Goldoni, which was written in the mid-18th century," Diamond said recently by phone. Written in the early 20th century, he said, the opera was performed in America for the first time in New York in 1911.

A hundred years ago, it was updated to reflect the early 20th century, and this year it again experienced a revival, he said.

"We set ours in the '60s," Diamond said. "[It] helps to follow the story a little bit easier."

Trying to maintain the humor of an Italian opera set in its original 18th-century style would have been asking a lot of contemporary audiences, Diamond said. The performance would have become more about the costumes than the language and the comedy, he said.

"It's something that feels that it's right for this piece," he said. "They in fact did update it. They used a lot of contemporary terms."

"They use the kind of language that we would feel is very familiar to us."

Following a group of women who want to know what happens in the men's club their husbands frequent, the opera is a comedy reminiscent of the TV show "I Love Lucy," Diamond said.

"The women feel like they deserve to know what's going on," he said. "The '60s felt appropriate because where we set it is right before everything began to [change] for women in the professional world and being their own people."

He said the opera represents the clash between "Father Knows Best" and "I Love Lucy."
With English subtitles appearing on a screen above the stage, the Italian opera ought to convey its comedic moments and lighthearted plot to audience members, he said. The audience will easily be able to view the subtitles and the action on stage simultaneously, he said.

"I hope that they'll have a good time, you know, that they'll enjoy it and they'll appreciate something that until now has been very rare," Diamond said.

"I feel like it's a very rewarding play to work on," he said. "I think that this opera is definitely going through a revival, of Wolf Trap having [just] produced it."

He also recently heard of another performance taking place in New York this month.
Diamond and music director Jan Wagner believe World War II played a large role in the opera falling into obscurity for such a long time.

"It did enjoy a bit of popularity," said Wagner, a faculty member at Shenandoah Conservatory. "It was performed in German quite a bit. ... Trying to make [the] opera a bit more accessible," he said.

"It seemed that it was a work that received the attention of prominent artists," he said.
But then WWII ceased performances around Europe, and after opera companies later began producing again, many works fell by the wayside, including "The Curious Women," Wagner said.

"It was a new work for me as well," he said, recalling how he felt when the conservatory was considering including the opera in its 2011-12 season.

"At first I was a bit hesitant. I had heard of the composer. ... I'd heard the name."
"We had to reach an agreement with Wolf Trap," he said.

"This is not uncommon to find companies that are purchasing work," he said. "It's becoming more trendy."

Purchasing sets from other theaters makes it easier for smaller theaters and schools to perform works that otherwise they would not have the money to perform, especially during a bad economy, he said.

"This has been a big step for us," Wagner said. "Doing an opera in its original language and having the subtitles is a first for us."

It's also a great opportunity for the cast, all Shenandoah students.

"I'm really quite astounded how well-written this music is, this opera," Wagner said. "It's difficult to put together."

Because it's mostly an ensemble cast, he said, the music is befitting of a group rather than individuals; operas normally would have a lot more arias, but this opera has only one, performed by a character he calls "the innocent young bride."

"You only hear snippets of little melodies," he said. "It all makes sense, but you don't hear any big arias like you do in Puccini."

The music, he says, is "very romantic, turn of the century ... trying to get away from the end-of-the-century [Wilhelm Richard] Wagner."

"It's a very charming piece," he said.

"The Curious Women" adds to a wide variety of plays and musical performances that will take place throughout the year at Shenandoah, but Wagner said this is the only full production of the season.

"And of course it's significant because it involves a lot of departments," he said.
"[It's] quite an effort," he said. "It's quite an endeavor, and there's not really anything like it throughout the year."

"There are very few schools or music programs or conservatories that can manage a production like that."

Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester will perform "The Curious Women" at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $15 for adults, $14 for seniors and $10 for students and active military. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the university box office at 665-4569 or visit www.conservatoryperforms.org.

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