Review: La Cifra

This 1789 comic opera by composer Antonio Salieri – only now having it’s American premiere with Dell’Arte Opera – put a permanent grin on my face throughout, and made me openly guffaw more often than any other opera I can think of. It is actually laugh out loud funny.

This is partially due to the work of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, my pick for greatest opera librettist of all time. He’s most famous for his collaborations with Mozart (La Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte). Mozart called all three opera buffa or “funny opera,” but they are generally more wry, satirical and thoughtful than the gleefully low farce we find in La Cifra. Still – and this is the particular genius of Da Ponte – every now and again there’s a single line that cuts through to very human truths, or casts things in a more ambivalent light. La Cifra made me laugh – a lot – but also frequently made me pause for thought.

Salieri deserves a big part of the credit too. There are some luscious melodies here, but what really stands out is his comic timing, not a terribly common gift in operatic composers. In the Act I finale the ensemble hits a loud chord at the least expected moment, causing one to laugh from sheer surprise. When the cast is puzzling over an important cipher (the titular cifra) in the final scene, Salieri has fun spacing out the letters of this mysterious code. And these are only the most obvious examples of Salieri’s pervasive musical wit.

The character with the most stage time is Rusticone (Angky Budiardjono), a greedy scheming father, a stock type descending from the character Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Da Ponte comes close to making us sympathize with the wily bastard, to the point of the whole story being seen from his point of view. Budiardjono takes that and runs with it, conspiratorially taking the audience into his confidence. Budiardjono has a vigorous yet precise sense of timing in every way, musically, comically, physically and more.

The plot is fluff directly out of commedia with all sorts of frustrated love, mistaken identity and general buffoonery. Stage director Brittany Goodwin had the savvy to lean into this commedia quality, encouraging the cast to go for a broad physicality which fits the material exceptionally well.

The cast is uniformly strong vocally, but what really matters here is that they are also all gifted comic actors. Standouts in this area include Allison Gish, who gives us Rusticone’s hedonistic daughter Lisotta with infectious exuberance, and Jay Chacon, who is clownish perfection as love-struck peasant Sandrino. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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