by SOPHIE KERMAN
It’s August again, and that means that Scotty Reynolds, Marya Hart and the gang at Mixed Precipitation are back with another zany adaptation of a classic opera. If you’re new to the company, this is an annual tradition worth getting on board with. Each year, the company picks an opera, tweaks it to make it more accessible to kids and opera skeptics, comes up with five fresh snacks to serve at strategic moments, and stages it in community gardens across the Twin Cities. It’s a combined picnic and open-air concert event that aims to refresh your musical and culinary palates with a new twist on the classics.
This year, the company has chosen to stage Beethoven‘s best and only opera, Fidelio, but to re-imagine it as Agent Fidelio, a tale of corporate whistleblowing and shady chemical manufacturing. Other than the environmental overtones of the new chemical side-plot, this interpretation isn’t actually too far off from the plot of the original Fidelio, in which Leonore must go undercover as a man to rescue her husband, Florestan, who has been imprisoned for attempting to expose the crimes of the evil Don Pizarro. Because Mixed Precipitation prefers their picnics under 90 minutes, some of the plot is presented through a pantomimed exposition which is more funny than elucidating, but it doesn’t really matter: the point is, unjust imprisonment, evildoing, and tasty food make for an entertaining outdoor experience.
The performances are at the company’s typically high level. Returning company member Lauren Drasler carries the role of Leonore with suave self-assurance and impressive vocals, while newcomer Stephen Mumbert is a scene-stealer as Don Pizarro, with an unquestionably evil-sounding bass voice and a knack for staying in character even when he isn’t the center of attention. Jim Ramlet and Rachel Wandrei make a talented pair as the jailer and his daughter, with Jim Ahrens rounding out a strong group of leads as the weakened Florestan. (Mixed Precipitation fans will also happily recognize many of the other ensemble members from previous productions.)
The whole production seems to flow more and more smoothly from year to year, with plenty of witty segues to introduce Nick Schneider and Chris Roberts’ delicious bites of food, which are passed around on trays by the cast. The company has always integrated some 20th-century tunes into its shows, and this year they have chosen to weave a few Jimmy Cliff numbers into the mix. Because of the overall accessibility of the show’s staging this year, the contemporary songs felt less central to the interpretation than they have in past years; however, one song in particular made for such a successful Beethoven mash-up that it completely justified the choice.
The Picnic Operettas are always on my August must-see list, because they manage to appeal to a long list of different types of audiences without sacrificing quality or artistic vision. If you know nothing about opera? The experience is more like a musical. If you love opera? The singing is top-notch and the interpretation is true to the original. If you’re broke? It’s free. If you’re hungry? There’s food. If you have a short attention span? The actors are up close and the staging makes use of the entire garden. If you’re interested in social justice? The little guy always ends up on top. The concept of going to see a modified opera in a garden might seem weird, but Agent Fidelio is a surefire afternoon treat for the last few weeks of summer.
Agent Fidelio: A Picnic Operetta by Ludwig van Beethoven, adapted by Scotty Reynolds, Marya Hart, and the members of the Company from the libretto by Joseph Ferdinand Sonnleithner. Presented in community gardens around the Twin Cities, August 10 – September 15 at 4pm and 7pm. Information at http://www.mixedprecipitation.org/shows/agent-fidelio-a-picnic-operetta/.