Cowboy hats and empty chairs on a stage might draw mixed feelings among political pundits, but using this "spaghetti Western" backdrop for classical opera, Fresco Opera Theatre wins over the viewers' vote.
Fresco Opera's "The Good, The Bad and The Divas," directed by Melanie Cain, presents excerpts from Mozart, Verdi and other operas in a Western film-like setting with an original storyline. The Bella Cantare gang of six rugged and jilted cowgirls takes a detour from their war against men to set their sights and pistols on releasing fellow gang member Kid Clementine (Rachel Holmes) from lockup.
While the Zip Dang Saloon may seem an unlikely place to hold a gathering of Italian arias, it turns out opera and the Wild West hold more than a few common values.
First, revenge and alcohol flow as strong as a river through the canyon. The townsfolk pound their tin mugs on the saloon tables to the beat of the Anvil Chorus from Verdi's "Il Trovatore" and continue to raise their glasses in other operatic drinking songs. Diana Kelley Eiler as the town Madam gives a delightfully raucous interpretation of "Il segreto per esser felici" from Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia," stumbling into and repelling the men at the saloon while drawing in the audience with her clear, expressive voice and humorous antics.
Second, the villain can easily be identified by his black garments, deep voice and resemblance to Jack Palance. Jonathan Ten Brink's role as the Bounty Hunter in Fresco Opera's production may be only marginally malevolent compared to other classic villains, but his draw is quick and calculated, and he chills the stage with his confident and brooding "Credo in un Dio crudel" from Verdi's "Otello."
Finally, love — or death — conquers all. The final showdown is well worth the ticket price, and riveting as the action is, the final set of music shines brightest. The voices of Holmes, Ten Brink and Brianne Sura (Deputy Sam) blend elegantly in Mozart's "Soave il vento" from "Cosi fan tutte." Saira Frank, who plays the frilly and flirtatious gang member Bella Rose, closes the show on a high note with her angelic soprano in the iconic moonstruck lovers' duet, "O suave fanciulla," from Puccini's "La Boheme."
Co-writer Jeff Turk provides narration with a smooth Western twang between some numbers to connect the plot, and a number of clever and crowd-pleasing extras are woven in, from the "Thriller"-like line choreography led by one-gloved gang member Bonny Jo Loco (Caitlin Cisler) to a performance by local square dance club members that had the audience clapping along to their do-si-dos.
The singers directly engage the crowd in the intimate Playhouse theater as they swagger into the aisles for some numbers and toss gold coins to audience members in another scene. With the Wild West set, playful storyline and recognizable song selection, "The Good, The Bad and The Divas" is a highly accessible, entertaining and unpretentious operatic smorgasbord. However, the trappings don't mask the musical talents, which emerge the heroes of this story.