Carmen. The Marriage of Figaro. La Traviata. Madame Butterfly. For opera lovers, these are the popular pinnacles of the medium, and after awhile, the same old names become too familiar. Spoleto has had its share of classics over the years (Cosi fan Tutte, Don Giovanni), although it admirably strives to include work from other countries and cultures.
For those who crave something less well-known, there’s the incredibly obscure Flora. The ballad opera was a big thing in the early 1700s but disappeared from print and memory not long afterward. The form of opera which satirized the Italian opera of the day was particularly popular in Charleston, where it was performed in the country’s first purpose-built venue, the Dock Street Theatre. To make up for its lack of public recognition, director and set and costume designer John Pascoe is going to town with visually impressive costumes and set pieces. Orchestrator Neely Bruce has incorporated riffs from 18th century songs that will be familiar to today’s audiences.
Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman plays Flora, the titular heroine of the opera, an ingénue who’s in line for a fortune. Although her servant Betty warns her that men are no good, she’s determined to bypass her guardian uncle and send a letter to Tom Friendly (baritone Tyler Duncan), the young gentleman she wants to marry. She sends it via a “country fellow” named Hob (Robert McPherson), who is intercepted by Flora’s uncle and two of his goons. Suspecting something’s up, the uncle orders his henchmen to throw Hob in the public well. With Hob missing and his parents frantic, Flora wonders if she’ll ever get to marry her chosen man.
Although Flora is unfamiliar, its director is the opposite. Pascoe has worked with many top opera houses, including The Met in New York, London’s Royal Opera House, and the Washington National Opera. He’s known for paying great attention to the trappings of the genre, updating and adding visual flair to productions like Ercole Su’l Termodonte and Ariodante at the Spoleto Festival, Italy.
Pascoe will bring associates from previous shows with him. Zach Staines, who played the lead in 2006’s Ercole, takes the role of Will. Choreographer Sara Erde has done six projects with Pascoe, including an exhilarating version of the old standard Don Giovanni.
While the director usually has previous recordings of an opera to fire his team’s imagination, this time he had none — until Neely Bruce created some for him. According to Pascoe, Bruce “composed most of the music based on the original manuscript,” working from fragments to put the opera back together. Some parts of the original material had all the foundations he needed (introduction, coda, and accompaniment included). Some had to be adapted to give Flora a bigger feel.
“We went with instruments that we knew were in Charleston in the 1730s,” Bruce says. The score relies on flute, oboe, bassoon, violin, guitar, and harpsichord. There’s no evidence of guitars being used here before the 1740s, but it fits Flora’s suitor Tom to a tee.
The action culminates at a village fair, where Tom’s family has a makeshift tavern. Tom sings a song, encapsulating a theme that was popular in his day: country folk are better than city folk, especially royal courtiers who are evil and mean.
“We call Sir Thomas ‘Mr. Horrible,’ brilliantly played by Tim Novan,” says the director. “I call it a tour de force. The public will find that each solo role is an incredibly strong performance.”
This version of Flora includes lots of dancing, familiar music, colorful costumes, versatile performers, and plenty of humor — some bawdy, some physical. Apparently Pascoe and Bruce aren’t the only ones going back in time to keep the opera true to its origins. They’ll be transporting the audience back there, too.
You don’t have to be an 18th century peasant to appreciate the songs and dialogue. The director and his team have put a lot of time and effort into making Flora relevant to today’s audiences while retaining its authenticity. Accessible or not, we can’t help but wonder if there’s a reason why this ballad opera disappeared. Not all great works survive to become part of a long-term lexicon, and this form of entertainment didn’t stay fashionable forever. We’re looking forward to seeing whether this little antique has the chops to compete with the classics.