In an angst-ridden conversation many years ago about new music, a friend of mine asserted that he didn’t care whether something was new as long as it was good. That conversation came to mind after seeing Christof Bergman’s opera buffa Piazza Navona on Sunday afternoon, in a production by Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre. 

Nothing in the libretto (by Maria Lissandrello) or the music pushes stylistic boundaries or raises deep questions. But the story is entertaining, the music is lyrical and well-crafted, and the cast features some excellent young talent who committed themselves wholly to the performance.

The program informs us that this is an “abridged representation” of the original three-act opera, though nothing in the company’s promotional materials had indicated this. (It clocked in at around 75 minutes, with no intermission.) The bare-bones production took place in a small fourth-floor black box at Roy Arias Theaters. The upright piano doubled as the bar, and a string of Christmas lights delineated the edges of the stage. Pantomime substituted for most props.

The plot is a romantic comedy of improbable errors. A restaurant is losing business because its chef is infatuated with his own innovations, coconut ravioli and the like. His jaded staff and even his most loyal customers despair for the restaurant’s future. And a phone call reveals that a food critic is on his way. As the staff and customers contrive a plan to thwart a culinary disaster, romantic feelings start bubbling to the surface – along with a few secrets.

It’s all very fluffy, but it’s fun. Not every contemporary opera is about presidents, or politics, or pop stars. Piazza Navona is billed as an opera buffa moderna, though its only modern touches are the cell phone and the television. It its Lissandrello’s first libretto, and Bergman, though born in 1962, received his first musical training only in 2003.

The music is unapologetically traditional: tonal, triadic, and metered. The vocal lines are lyrical, lovely, and eminently singable. Most importantly, the music is effective for the theater. Bergman uses musical materials that may come across as simple (or simplistic), but he has a gift for melody and for evoking the moods – joy, wistfulness, desire, anger – of his comic opera. Some of the best music depicts moments of tension: a seduction, a catfight, a lament.

Structurally, Piazza Navona is more a musical than an opera. There’s no recitative: nearly all the action takes place in spoken dialogue, while the arias and ensembles explore the characters’ emotions. The characters talk, and then they sing, and then they talk, and then they sing. This dichotomy is emphasized by the fact that they speak in English and sing in Italian, and Opera Manhattan doesn’t provide translations. (The synopsis explains what they’re singing about, but only in one-liners.)

Opera Manhattan has a few technical issues to iron out. The fateful restaurant review is meant to take place on television, but the singers found themselves ad-libbing while waiting for it to start. One brave cast member went so far as to suggest that the TV was subtitled before the recording came on and they were able to return to their lines.

Some of the characterizations didn’t quite mesh with the opera’s internal details. The bartender Roberto, for example, is all bluster in yelling at the new waiter, Mario; but soon Rachele, who admires him, calls him “shy.” Mario, in the synopsis of the full version, is described as optimistic, but in the opening scene here, he’s all sarcasm and rolled eyes.

It’s a shame that most of Mario’s material was cut, since without any arias, he lacks anything that would create a real character. His declaration of love for Giada – which would be a stretch even in a Hollywood romantic comedy – actually brought chuckles from the audience, because there was so little support for it. It didn’t help that Robert Maril rushed through many of his lines at the height of his character’s storyline.

Among the men, Dane Reese (Roberto) was the standout. His round baritone voice more than filled the small theater, and his romance with Rachele was the only one that felt plausible. Tenor Kirk Bangstad (Enzo / Tony Tommasi) seemed to be having an off night: any note above an F sounded sandpaper-rough, and his highest notes had to be barked out. Fortunately, Bangstad was quite funny, particularly with his expressive face. (As a side question: did Bergman purposely name the intimidating critic Toni Tommasi as a reference to the similarly-named New York-based music critic?)

The speaking role of Pino / Oliver James doesn’t quite make sense, particularly the shift in the middle of the critic’s visit from Pino to Oliver and back again. The speaking actor Collen Doyle made the most of the role, however. If only the flashlight he kept shining around had provided more metaphorical light.

As the two friends who are Da Enzo’s most loyal customers, soprano Jill Dewsnup (Giada) and mezzo-soprano Yiselle Blum (Rachele / Tiziana) made a stellar vocal pair. Their duets sparkled with synergy, and Dewsnup brought the house down with her grand lament toward the end. Blum deployed a vivid stage presence in the flirting, pouting, and scheming role of Rachele, and her seduction of Enzo was a highlight of the opera. However, the character of Tiziana should have been more strongly differentiated from that of Rachele.

Soprano Kristin Vogel made a strong vocal impression as the waitress Filippa, though her pantomiming was often puzzling. (The danger in doing an opera with so few props, of course, is that every gesture must make sense to the uninitiated in the audience.) And since the Oliver/Pino character didn’t quite make sense, neither did Rachele’s relationship to him. As Donatella, soprano Michelle Pretto displayed a rich, smoky voice with a wide range, though some of her lower notes needed stronger focus.

Violetta Zabbi (one of the music directors, along with Robert Agis) did an admirable job of playing the piano score. The score itself is sparse in places, and its simplicity requires a deft touch to avoid verging on the inane.

In the spoken dialogue, the accents were wildly inconsistent. Most of the women speak in plain American English until they pick a word or two to inflect with flamboyantly rolled Rs. Roberto speaks in a thick Italian accent that sometimes falls into an aggressive Italian-American that sounds very New York. The libretto throws in Italian phrases here and there, further muddling the linguistic soup. Picking one approach for the whole cast would have avoided the awkwardness of these inconsistencies.

The director’s note talks about the characters “floating on a timeless raft,” “waiting for a big change… to come through the restaurant’s door.” Perhaps it’s a function of the cuts, but very little of that sense of expectation comes through. The characters seem more stuck than poetically suspended, and the singers portraying them sometimes turn to arbitrary-seeming traits in order to give them personality. In most cases, the characters’ desire for love feels like a necessary convention, a plot device, rather than a smoldering human passion. Whether it’s the opera, the production, or a combination, there’s a lurking uncertainty: is this purely a light, pleasant trifle? Does it have something more serious to say? If it doesn’t, is that a flaw, or merely a fact? It may be most enjoyable to leave off the ambition and simply enjoy it for the entertainment it presents.

Opera Manhattan, according to the program’s introduction, “was envisioned as a vital source of performance opportunities for under-served singers.” In this goal, it seems to be succeeding. With its delightful vocal writing and amusing characters, Piazza Navona offers a tasty piece for young artists to sink their teeth into.

Opera Manhattan offers three more performances of Piazza Navona, with music by Christof Bergman and libretto by Maria Lissandrello, on Feb. 25, 26, and 27, with alternating casts.