How funny can anyone really expect opera to be? Intentionally funny, that is.
Supposed comic masterpieces such as Falstaff and Die Meistersinger basically offer levity. Italian opera buffa gets laughs when singers behave with unexpected silliness. So we won't hold it against Curtis Opera Theatre that its production of Rossini's La scala di seta at Prince Music Theater was good mostly for giggles and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi owed many laughs to fast-and-loose surtitle translations full of local references.
Seldom heard, the 1812 La scala di seta (The Silk Ladder) has long spans of music that are at odds with modern comic swiftness. Musically, though, advances in Rossini performance more readily locate the charm in some of the lesser works, which is why one appreciated that conductor Lio Kuokman didn't oversell the piece - and revealed the wind-instrument writing as some of the composer's most stylish. The production looked stylish, too, set in a clock tower with most entrances made from a trapdoor.
The stock plot about a secretly married maiden trying to head off an arranged marriage was staged by Stephanie Havey with a let's-try-this desperation. Physicality was often gratuitous; cheap shots had guys repeatedly peeking under women's skirts. But let's face it: You have to do something. What made the opera revivable are the many excellent arias, with the composer echoing Mozart but not falling into the codification that made some later works seem like formula over content.
Performancewise, the opera had its flubs, stylistic tentativeness, and voices whose coloratura technique (essential in this opera) is still evolving. Yet you most definitely "got" the opera. And Thursday's female protagonist Giulia was heard in fully realized form from Ashley Milanese, a near-ideal coloratura soubrette. Tenor Mingjie Lei had a particularly rich tone. As for the others, stay tuned.
Gianni Schicchi, written a century later, contains genuine comic psychological insights into the over-entitled greed of blood relatives waiting for a miserly patriarch to die. The modern-dress production ingeniously put that miser's deathbed in his bank vault, where he has lived with only a bed, porno magazines, and an inflatable doll. Surtitles referred to one shady character as having been "mayor of Toronto" - another manifestation of cleverness.
This was one high-concept Curtis Opera production that provided a safety net for the young artists' lack of seasoning. Though everybody performed well, nobody owned the roles; Jamez McCorkle's portrayal of the title character, for example, had good general outlines but rarely projected what the character was thinking. All sang well, even though Elena Perroni's success with "O mio babbino caro" had much to do with Kuokman's effectively milking the music for all it's worth.
Additional performances, with revolving cast: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Tickets: $5-$50. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.curtis.edu.