THEATER REVIEW | Mixed Precipitation's "Agent Fidelio: A Picnic Operetta" utterly charms

Photo courtesy Mixed Precipitation

Summer To-Do list: (1) bike, (2) swim, (3) have a picnic...or better yet, go to a picnic operetta! Ever tried one? How about Agent Fidelio: a Picnic Operetta, produced by Mixed Precipitation? Its charm may beguile you—secret agents popping up in the cucumber patch, a trumpeter atop the climbing tower, melodramatic suspense and frivolity with dynamite vocals, and antics galore to humor young and old alike, along with a five-course tasting menu, all to the utter delight of the audience. Once again, it’s good vs. evil—and the winner is...?

In this ambitious, high-energy performance, Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, written in 1805, is catapulted into the 21st century, replete with “cellphone” (zucchini with antenna), its themes of revolution and liberation still eminently relevant, reincarnated with verve for a contemporary audience. A demanding score is sung with gusto in German, with English “subtitles,” clever summaries that together with the program and splendid acting make the plot abundantly clear.

Upon arrival on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, audience members were given a “ticket,” a napkin, and a program with a handle (doubling as a fan), and the picnic was under way. We gathered by the community garden in front of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, and were encouraged to pick vegetables for a food shelf, as well as contribute extra produce from our own gardens.

After an introduction to the cast, musicians, and setting for the story, we grabbed a taste of curried vegetables and headed across the street to the playground, settling in on blankets and chairs.

Without delay, the audience is swept into a story of intrigue as we follow Leonore, a.k.a. Agent Fidelio, the “faithful” (in Latin, fidelis) and love-driven heroine as she morphs into a cross-dressing undercover agent. Disguised as a prison guard, she infiltrates the Pepper Pit Penitentiary, risking life and limb (and marriage to the jailer’s eager daughter) in order to rescue her husband, Florestan, a political prisoner, languishing in the prison’s nether regions, a justice-seeker on the verge of perishing.

Suspense builds as a scheming sheriff, Pizarro, plans to expedite Florestan’s demise, for it is he who sought to expose the sheriff’s corruption. And the audience fears Fidelio’s efforts will not be in time to save Florestan from a vengeful Pizarro.

Meanwhile, we munch on kale chips (vegetables play a leading role in this production) as the prisoners enjoy a fleeting moment in the sun and a taste of freedom, thanks to Leonore/Agent Fidelio’s advocacy. They sing a heartfelt ode to freedom, "O welche Lust, in freier Luft." ”O, what joy, in the fresh/free air.” We agree.

The inmates, however, must return to prison. They sing a lament, Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”:

“Many rivers to cross but I can’t seem to find my way over/ Many rivers to cross and it’s only my will that keeps me alive....”

In the glow of a late afternoon sun, we are warmed and relieved to see Agent Fidelio’s resourcefulness and love win the day! Florestan is saved, and reunited with his wife. Justice prevails, tyranny overthrown. “Hail to the day!” they sing. 

We sip our ginger brew and listen to the cast sing Jimmy Cliff’s “Born to Win,” a paean to hope and courage, to the triumph of the human spirit over life’s trials and tribulations, and, yes, of good over evil: 

“I'm not alone, how can I fail...I am born to win.”

Ah, summer! It was a picnic—it had everything but the ants—a picnic and then some. Beautiful music, instrumental and vocal, plenty of prancing, strutting, and proclaiming, sneaking and surprising—everything you’d want in an operetta. And most of all, hospitality was in the air, and it was contagious, as we shared blankets and food, smiles and laugher. 

What do the people say about the performance? 

“It’s the most magical afternoon I’ve had since childhood. The birds, butterflies, slight breeze, delicious morsels of food, communal atmosphere, and of course the fantastic performance by your company had me charmed beyond my expectations.” –Audience Member at the J.D. Rivers Children’s Garden, North Minneapolis

The picnic operetta is the brainchild, and now signature event, of Mixed Precipitation, an innovative performance company “exploring text, space and form with festive theatrical events that inspire social engagement,” as their website says. Scotty Reynolds, director and instigator (also trumpeter in the show) has a fancy for genre-stretching productions that surprise and amaze. Performances are staged in metro green spaces: parks, community gardens, orchards, urban farms.

Agent Fidelio will be performed this weekend in Swede Hollow Park, St. Paul, and at the Women’s Environmental Institute Farm and Orchard at Amador Hill, North Branch. Performances are free, with reservations requested and donations encouraged.

Consider a picnic operetta for next summer’s To Do list.

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    green104's picture
    Jean Greenwood

    Jean Greenwood (green104 [at] umn [dot] edu) lives in Minneapolis.