MUSTO: Bastianello. BOLCOM: Lucrezia.
Appleby (Bastianello, Laurent/Lorenzo); Matt Boehler (Luciano/Chucho); Patrick Mason (Bastianello the elder, Frediano, Ippolito, Lino/Ignacio); Lisa Vroman (Amadora, Ettalina, Stelladora/Annunciata); Sasha Cooke (Ortensia, Eustacia/Lucrezia); Michael Barrett & Steven Blier (pianos).
Bridge 9299 A/B (2 CDs) TT: 91:13

Foolish husbands. A latter-day payola scandal, prosecuted by then New York State attorney-general Eliot Spitzer (another foolish husband), brought forward a large settlement that required the defendants to fund New York music and arts programs. The New York Festival of Song (co-founded by Michael Barrett and Steven Blier) got some of the money and commissioned two chamber operas: one from John Musto, composer of the comic opera Volpone, and one from the prodigious William Bolcom. In both cases, lyricist Mark Campbell provided the librettos. Campbell, who has written librettos for at least two other Musto operas, received the Kleban Award for lyrics from a panel headed by Stephen Sondheim. He has branched out to working with other composers as well.

I must say that these are as much Campbell's shows as Musto's and Bolcom's. The texts are witty, the lyrics eminently singable and clear from the stage. There's even, here and there, real poetry in them. Having recently read Sondheim's Finishing the Hat -- among other things, a discourse on the art of lyrics -- I can understand why Sondheim's a fan.

Bastianello tells the tale of a husband, Luciano, who walks out on his wife, after she spills wine, and vows not to return until he finds six people stupider than her. He finds five (in the process, helping them out of the jams they've gotten themselves into) and then comes across a man dragging a net across a lake at night. Years before, he got angry at his wife and stormed out. She ran after him, fell into the lake, and drowned. He hears her calling to him, "Save me," and tries to catch the moon's reflection in his net. Luciano tries to point this out, but the man doesn't pay him any attention. He has driven himself crazy with remorse and says, "When you love someone, you have to love them all the time." Luciano has found his sixth fool. It is he himself. He returns home and reconciles. Musto's music comes over as a bit brittle in the first scenes. However, as Luciano embarks on his quest, the music warms up considerably. For the scene at the lake, Musto digs deep and brings back something beautiful and affecting.

Lucrezia comes from Machiavelli's farce La Mandragola (the mandrake), about a husband who wants a son and, because she hasn't conceived, thinks his wife barren. A rich young man loves the wife, Lucrezia, and his servant hatches a scheme so that the young prince can sleep with her. He poses as a doctor who can guarantee results. He recommends to the husband a potion -- made of mandrake root and a few drops of lime juice -- guaranteed to produce a child. The problem is that the next man to sleep with his wife will die from the potion's side effects. So the idea is to find some poor schmo to take the place of the husband. The proposal put to the wife shocks her, but the urging of her mother and a priest (!) gets her to reluctantly agree. Finally, the young blade arranges to be kidnapped as the sacrifice and sleeps with the wife. In Machiavelli's play, the lovemaking is so spectacular for both, that the two manage to keep the arrangement permanent. Campbell streamlines the plot a little and cuts down the number of characters. Lucrezia overhears her would-be lover plotting and decides to go along from the beginning. The lover impersonates the doctor, the priest, and the ninny. At the play's end, the lovers confess all to one another. When the husband enters, Lucrezia throws a pretend fit at breaking her marriage vows and insists that the "priest" who heard her confession that day should hear her confession four - no, seven - days a week.

Campbell also transposes the setting and updates the time to turn-of-the-century Argentina. This allows Bolcom to create an affectionate send-up of the clichés of Spanish music, often over-the-top. If you know the cocktail-piano bromides of Bolcom's song "Over the Piano," you have a pretty good idea of the broadness of the parody, and there's plenty of wit as well.

I actually dreaded having to review this, since I thought I'd be caught in the precious and campy, but Campbell and his composers know the virtues of dry wit and have keen eyes for worthy objects of satire. The performances further sell these works. All the singers can act. All have a feeling for comedy. Barrett and Blier provide a sparkling two-piano accompaniment (I didn't miss an orchestra). My only carp is that it's two discs, one for each opera, and Bastianello runs less than 40 minutes. Granted, you can't fit both works on a single CD, but they could have given us some of Musto's songs to fill out the disc space.

S.G.S. (April 2011)