REVIEW WRITTEN BY CHERYL THORNBURG
For Digital First Media
Lorenzo Da Ponte is not a household name despite being the librettist for Mozart and Salieri, but a new jazz opera about him could help change that. “Da Ponte,” presented by Reading Theatre Project with Berks Opera Company, is an absurdity based in reality, wrapped up in stunning performances and sophisticated music.
The best word to describe it would be avant garde, since I have never seen anything like it. “Da Ponte” varies from over-the-top comedy to tender moments to historic meetings, all set to a jazz score that should seem like an anachronism — but it works. Both the music and the man evolve and grow on Da Ponte’s journey of self discovery.
To appreciate and follow along with “Da Ponte,” it helps to know a little bit about the life of the title figure, a talented outgoing man with a lust for life, who reinvents himself frequently as his fortunes change. He was born into a Jewish family, but after his mother’s death, his father marries a Catholic woman and the family converts to Catholicism. He eventually becomes a Catholic priest, a poet, teacher and a librettist to Mozart and Salieri, among others. He has numerous affairs with different women and eventually is banned from Venice and Vienna and leaves London in financial ruin, then travels to America, where he makes his mark in New York and Pennsylvania. He even makes a stop in Reading.
The success of this show depends on the actor playing Da Ponte and Zachary Luchetti is so believable, he seems to be the charming, roguish Da Ponte reincarnated. His rich baritone delivers every number with depth and emotion. He also has strong comedic skills, which come into play often in the outlandish situations Da Ponte encounters.
The numerous other characters are portrayed by three of the area’s best vocalists. They use costumes and body language to change characters, and sometimes genders.
Tamara Black is a powerful soprano who is equally engaging as Da Ponte’s lover, Dark Eyes, the composer Salieri, and as Nancy Grahl, who becomes his wife. In that role, she is particularly entertaining as she sings about why she loves Da Ponte.
Maria Damore, a mezzo soprano, shows off her versatility as Angiola, another of Da Ponte’s lovers, then switches to play two emperors — Joseph II and his successor, Leopold. The audience erupted into applause after her performance as the latter.
The last of the ensemble is Matt Mangus, a young tenor who plays numerous older roles including a bishop, Da Ponte’s brother, and Mozart. As the latter, he and Luchetti deliver a fabulous duet as they work on “The Marriage of Figaro.”
The music is provided by a first-rate trio, dressed in period garb to add to the ambience of the production. They are Chris Heslop, Lars Potteiger and Thomas Hilliker.
This is the world premier of “Da Ponte,” created by three talented people who have local roots: Chris Heslop, composer; Vicki Haller Graff, librettist and Sue Lange, story. “Da Ponte” s directed by Christopher David Roché.
The costumes, designed by Rebeka Birch and Christine Ceplinski, add yet another dimension to this complex production. They range from period pieces with lush fabrics to colorful, over-the-top gowns giving a flavor of farce to some scenes.
Whether or not you’re an opera fan, “Da Ponte” is a worthwhile , unique theater experience. It will make you laugh and it will also introduce you to a memorable historic figure. If you go, you will never forget “Da Ponte,” the man or the opera.