NEW YORK -- With all the reckless disregard of youth for practicality, the 15-year-old Mozart filled his opera "Il sogno di Scipione" with one impossibly difficult aria after another.
High Cs, Ds and even Es cascade from the pages of this one-act work as if they were the easiest notes in the world for the poor sopranos and tenors who have to reach them.
Small wonder that the piece has rarely been performed. In fact, a production 10 years ago that launched the Gotham Chamber Opera was its first in the U.S. Now, the company is marking its anniversary by reviving that staging, directed again by Christopher Alden.
While the adventuresome company is well worth celebrating, this production, seen at Wednesday night's premiere, is less so. Alden starts with a promising premise but lets it run off-track. There's a lot of imagination and wit on view, but also some overacting and cliches.
The thinly plotted work (the title translates to "The Dream of Scipio") imagines the Roman general Scipio Africanus the Younger having to choose in a dream between fortune and constancy.
Alden sets the action in a modern bedroom, and when the curtain rises we see what appears to be the morning after a menage a trois, with Scipio wearing pajama bottoms and asleep beside two scantily dressed young women. They turn out to be Fortune and Constancy and demand he say which one he prefers.
Suddenly Scipio realizes he's no longer on Earth but in heaven. A chorus of oddly clothed apparitions pop in through the windows, and a walk-in closet becomes a portal through which his military forebears appear: first his adoptive father Publio (missing a leg and hobbling on crutches), then his real father Emilio (a wheelchair user and attended by a nurse who frequently wipes drool from his mouth).
After getting their advice, Scipio makes his choice: Constancy. Now back on Earth, he dismisses the enraged Fortune, dresses in a business suit and, picking up a briefcase, heads off to work (or to battle: In real life this Scipio would go on to lead his army in the destruction of Carthage).
Based on the performances by the young cast, Scipio picked the right one. Soprano Marie-Eve Munger as Constancy displayed a warm lyric soprano that stayed pleasing even on the high notes, while soprano Susannah Biller sounded shrill as Fortuna. Worse, much of the time Biller was directed to mug and simper her way through the role.
Tenor Michele Angelini was splendid as Scipione, a sweet, unforced sound with a heroic ring to it and remarkable agility in the upper reaches of his voice.
Also impressive were tenor Arthur Espiritu as Publio and Rachel Willis Sorensen as Licenza, a character who appears in an epilogue and speaks directly to the audience. Sorensen has a large, rich voice, but she needed to scale back the volume a bit in the intimate Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. And she, too, did a fair amount of simpering, as well as some silly dance moves.
Neal Goren conducted the orchestra in a vibrant account of this astonishing score.
There are five more performances through April 21.