It would be nice to report that Vincente Martin y Soler's opera, Diana's Garden is a lost masterpiece, a great work of art unheralded to this day. Vincente Martin y Soler was born in Valencia and made his mark composing operas that competed with Mozart's (and Salieri's) in Vienna, Prague, and Dresden. Indeed, I believe Diana's Garden is more or less contemporary to Mozart's Don Giovanni. In his time, Martin y Soler was highly regarded -- he knocked about Europe at the whim of royal patronage and, even, worked for four years in St. Petersburg. He is now forgotten as are his compositions. The Minnesota Opera revived Diana's Garden, a comic opera, for four performances in late January 2017 -- I attended the show on the 28th of January.
Diana's Garden was well-staged and handsomely produced. The singers were second-rate, but, even, a second-rate opera singer is capable of producing beautiful sounds far beyond the ken of most mere mortals. The opera itself is filled with ingenious and witty tunes -- half of them are sufficiently audience pleasing as to be hummable. (You find yourself singing some of the melodies at the intermission and, later, after the show, but, alas, the music is both sprightly and completely forgettable. By the time you are home, all of the tunes will have vanished from your memory.) Unfortunately, the opera is torpedoed by a lousy libretto, the work of Lorenzo da Ponti, an otherwise estimable dramatist -- he wrote Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutti. Despite everyone's best efforts, Diana's Garden particularly in its second act is almost unbearable tedious. This problem must be ascribed to flaws in da Ponti's book -- he is not adapting a myth, but instead reworking mythological material into a narrative. And da Ponti completely botches the narrative -- even by operatic standards, the story doesn't make an sense, is unduly repetitive, and, even, illogical. Many operas have implausible stories that are laughably childish -- but even the most melodramatic or absurd operas in the canon are lyrical, that is, they make sense in musical terms. Diana's Garden by contrast has no lyrical development -- it's just a dull variation on a set of uninteresting themes. Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, lives on an island. A hillbilly swain washes up on the island and, when he revives, chases three of the goddess' nymphs. (The hillbilly wearing a shapeless Green Acres hat and suspenders fancies himself as great a lover as "the great Turk" and can't understand why he can't seduce all three of the robust nymphs.) Diana intervenes and turns the peasant into a tree. Da Ponti and Martin y Soler seem to forget this bit of magic. About ten minutes later, it seems that the hillbilly has been turned into a dog owned by a hunter and killed in the chase. The dog is resurrected and, somehow, this frees the hillbilly from his cut rate Ovid-ian metamorphosis. In the meantime, Amore has appeared and she gives darts to the hunter and his side-kick, a shepherd named Endimione. It wasn't clear to me whether Amore was originally written as a pant's role or for a castrato -- I suspect the latter. The part seems composed as androgynous although the director (Peter Rothstein of Theater Latte Da) imagines the role as a flirtation girl with a page-boy bob who sometimes appears riding a bicycle and other times lolls on a swing high above the action like one of Fragonard's seductresses. Amore tells the men to throw the darts into the nymphs and Diana so as to seduce them. But, in a disappointing lapse in the libretto, the darts never get thrown or used in any way. In the second half of the opera, the stuff in occurring the first half just is repeated ad nauseam. Diana falls in love with Endimione, tries to seduce him, gets disgusted with herself and renounces love, only to pick up efforts at seduction about ten minutes later. The nymphs are pursued, almost succumb, then, escape, then, are pursued again, and so on. There is no advance to the story -- everything is paralyzed around a central dilemma: the chaste goddess is in love but can't act on her love and so she flirts and teases but doesn't ever really deliver the goods. The opera's conclusion is completely unacceptable. The show's logic is that each of the three mortals will end up coupled with one of the nymphs. But da Ponti is too inept to manage this. Diana ends up coupled with the boorish shepherd, Endimione and Doristo, the hillbilly, for some reason gets both of the nymphs. This leaves the third protagonist, the hunter without a date -- I don't know what's wrong with him: does he smell bad or is he gay? It shouldn't be hard to devise a scenario in which every lover gets hooked-up with an appropriate mate -- but this seems to have been completely beyond da Ponti's ability. (You wonder if the guy was unable to count or something.)
The direction is flippant, even a little snarky -- one of the men has to sing an aria with a rope in his mouth (he's tying himself into bondage); it's pretty clear that Rothstein doesn't have any reverence for the music. Diana sings while strenuously mixing a martini and shaking it. Later, she sings an aria while cleaning her shotgun, stroking the shaft of the muzzle lasciviously and, then, driving a swab up and down in the gun's barrel. Amore has to sing an aria while riding her bicycle. Rothstein sets the action in the American 1950's and the nymphs and goddesses wear the kind of clothing you might see in a Todd Haynes' film like Carol -- pastel dresses with pointy-bras. The set is very pretty, a faded rendition of a Claude Lorrain landscape (previously seen as a framed picture before the show begins) covering the entire interior of a broken-down and decrepit hunting lodge full of decaying furniture and stuffed trophies. Diana prances around with a shotgun, threatening the men (and the nymphs) with that weapon. At the end, the enclosure of the hunting lodge breaks open to leafy bower where Amore is hoisted high over the action in resplendent golden light on a swing. There's a tree with golden apples that is supposed to be significant to the action but never does much of anything. Rapturous moments are signified by gales of falling rose-buds. At the end of the opera, the heroine and her boyfriend, Endimione, are clad in white wedding garments that look as if a flower shop puked all over them -- they are studded with bouquets incongruously sticking out of the fabric. The effect is both disgusting and hideous. It's one of those incomprehensible things about opera and its design -- you have to ask: "What in the world were they thinking?"