Lorenzo da Ponte's partnership with Mozart was his ticket to immortality, but his collaborations with the Spanish-born Vicente Martín y Soler were more numerous, beginning in Vienna four months before Le Nozze di Figaro with Il Burbero di Buon Cuore (The Good-Hearted Curmudgeon) and ending in London nearly four years after Mozart's death with their fifth opera, L'Isola del Piacere (Pleasure Island).
Within the Martín canon, L'Arbore di Diana — the third and last of da Ponte and Martín's Viennese hits — occupies the Così Fan Tutte position, as it were, sharing with Mozart's work a strikingly cynical view of sexual politics. At the same time, it anticipates Die Zauberflöte in very startling ways. Start with three ladies squabbling over an unconscious boy toy. Add a tempestuous coloratura diva who turns out to be a paper tiger. Wrap the whole in supernatural folderol, in this case a clairvoyant tree that bathes the virtuous in heavenly sound and light but bombards the wicked with excremental black apples.
Martín's contemporaries prized his lyricism, much of it at the time well within the capacities of amateurs, who sang his tunes at home. Structurally numbers are simple or even simplistic, based on dance forms. Winds and brass weave through the string writing to elegant and pointed effect. In L'Arbore di Diana thereis much to take pleasure in but little that most listeners will find electrifying, except in Diana's role, which grafts the daredevil bravura of the Queen of the Night onto the soul-searching of Fiordiligi. As Greek mythology dictates, Diana stands for Chastity, an ideal offensive to Love, or Amore, embodied here as a boy Cupid — temperamentally part Despina, part Don Alfonso — who delights in female disguise.
The material abounds in smutty possibilities, and Francisco Negrin seizes on all he can in this staging, filmed at Barcelona's Liceu in 2009. The piercing male soprano Michael Maniaci portrays Amore as a graduate of Hairspray. Dolled up in cotton-candy wig and half-inch eyelashes, he annihilates the mischievous charm reportedly conveyed by the role's originator Luisa Laschi, who was Mozart's first Countess. ("Grace personified," a reviewer wrote of her Amore.) Diana's three followers (Ainhoa Garmendia, Marisa Martins and Jossie Perez) are surrounded by strapping drag artistes on pointe. Some viewers will find these shenanigans more entertaining than others.
The three lads Amore throws in the ladies' way are a motley crew. Marco Vinco plays Doristo — part Papageno, part Nijinsky Faun — in a shaggy pelt and leather coat, his beefy bass bouncing merrily through his music. As the sleeping beauty Endimione, the polished tenor Steve Davislim seems off his game, giving the lie to those who claim Martín's elementary lines are easy to sing. Charles Workman, another tenor, lends a fine, reedy timbre to Silvio, a fighter who dresses in women's clothes for a climactic episode that plays like a sketch for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Diana falls to the capable Laura Aikin, who scowls like Jeanne Moreau but delivers the goods in a steady stream of clean if shrewish tone.
The production is your basic white-box, mostly abstract School of Wilson affair, with strategic flourishes of the monumental, among them a statue of Diana looming over a mound of Diana Barbie-dolls. Dollops of laser light and projection impart a vaguely disco look. Musically, touches of electronic distortion for "magical" effect are unfortunate in the extreme. One suspects they were Negrin's idea. Those aberrations aside, Harry Bicket shapes the score with a skillful hand, by turns sprightly and incendiary, as occasion requires.
Laura Aikin; Michael Maniaci, Charles Workman, Steve Davislim, Marco Vinco; Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Harry Bicket. Production: Francisco Negrin. Dynamic 33651, 147 mins., subtitled