Small picture of Donizetti

 

 

Summer Bel Canto in New York State

Dan Foley

 

The second half of an article that appeared in

Donizetti Society Newsletter 111, October 2010, pp. 8-12.

...

After an unsatisfactory Viva la Mamma! (Le convenienze ed inconvenienze  teatrali)   from the Lake George Opera it was with a collective sigh of relief that we waved good-bye to Saratoga, and journeyed south to Katonah for the Caramoor Festival, where their second performance of Norma, conducted by Will Crutchfield, promised much better things. Caramoor has become a necessary part of my summers, and the wrongs of the Lake George experience were more than righted in this one. Caramoor is unique: set in a bucolic forest, a complex of Spanish villas and outbuildings, fountains, lush green picnic spaces, and gardens, the opera (or concert) one attends is only a part of a larger experience. The operas are preceded by lectures and concerts by the young artists engaged by the festival.

This time, Andrew Porter gave an engaging lecture focusing on the singers of the past (Grisi in particular) who had sung the role of the hapless druidess, outlining the vocal challenges that make the part so fearsome - and so attractive - to sopranos. A fascinating and informative recital of Wagnerian music followed, intended to illustrate how Bellini's music had influenced the younger composers'.

Caramoor's Norma, Angela Meade, has been on my radar screen for some years now. It's a voice that is difficult not to like, but in the past I feared that she was being set on path to vocal perdition by management and agents forcing her into big dramatic roles for which she lacked the requisite vocal maturity. I certainly thought so when I heard her in Ernani at the Met, and at last year's Semiramide at Caramoor. I therefore approached this Norma with more than a small dose of skepticism, despite the considerable buzz on the street that she'd knocked the ball out of the park.

And indeed, it seems something magical had happened between last year and this. For once in this age of vocal `stars' manufactured by slick PR rather than actual talent and technique, the reality has actually surpassed the hype. Not only could Meade sing the notes, but she was utterly convincing. The old tentativeness, the inability to cleanly cut through a big ensemble, and a host of other problems she had before seemed to have vanished. In the embryonic diva's place was an utterly new, fully-formed one - the same remarkable instrument, but utilized with a new confidence and control. She owned the evening. Articulation was flawless, even in the most difficult passages, trills were clean; pianissimi seemed to emerge from nowhere yet surrounded the hearer. There was great dramatic power in the chest voice, and a soaring line that cut through even the big choruses like butter. She was utterly captivating in the “Casta Diva”, fearsome in the Act I trio and in the duet “In mia man alfin tu sei”, heartrending in the finale ultimo. This singer has definitely arrived, and I only wish I could see her at Wexford in Mercadante's Virginia.

The evening would have been worthwhile even if none of the other performances were standout, but everyone else acquitted themselves beautifully. Soprano Keri Alkema as Adalgisa matched Meade's coloratura technique ornament for ornament. Her voice was darker than Meade's, a nice contrast in their duets, and her dramatic commitment was similarly complete. “Sgombra e la sacra selva” included rather fatuous ornamentation, which served not to enhance the aria, but to obscure the melodic line.

Kudos, too, are due to Emmanuel di Villarosa as Pollione who sang the role even though indisposed. The voice was a bit raw, the vocal line somewhat altered to avoid some of the higher passages. But the basic timbre of the voice was quite attractive, and by the time of the final scenes, he had warmed up. Dramatically he was quite convincing, especially in the finale ultimo, an accomplishment given the improbability of Pollione's change of heart.

The Oroveso was Caramoor's stalwart bass Daniel Mobbs, who seemed a bit worn the last couple of times I heard him, but here had returned to his former sonorous self. His participation in the final ensemble - when he relents and agrees to care for Norma's children - was especially moving.

 

Caramoor's next offering, Maria di Rohan was almost as good as their Norma, but (and I'll probably be roasted for saying this) Maria is in my opinion a stronger opera. Given on July 24 (a brutally sweltering evening), this was unfortunately a one-time-only performance. We were nervous, as the announced Maria, Takesha Kizart, was indisposed due to allergies and would not be able to appear. In her place, cover Jennifer Rowley had been called up to serve at very short notice. We'd heard Miss Rowley the week before in the pre-opera concert of young artists. While impressive, Rowley's performance there hadn't given us a clear idea how well she would fare singing an entire opera (and a demanding one at that).

The pre-concert fare was especially rich. At 3, we enjoyed a brief panel discussion with Philip Gossett and Will Crutchfield, in which they discussed some of the particularly interesting features of Maria di Rohan. At 4:15, we enjoyed a concert of the alternative music from Maria which we wouldn't be hearing at the main performance, then at 5pm a concert of Donizetti's vocal music written while in Vienna. This included songs as well as a complete performance of the Miserere in G minor. Finally, Gossett gave a characteristically informative and animated lecture at 7pm on the opera itself, giving special attention to its influence on Verdi, which is especially evident in Ballo.

At the risk of being sidetracked, I want to acknowledge an exceptional young tenor who participated in both the Norma and Maria di Rohan pre-performance concerts. Brian Landry is the real thing - a tenor with a big, and I mean HUGE voice, one with beauty, heft, an Italianate squillo, solid technique, marvellous diction, and real emotional involvement in the material he's singing. He blew us away in all that he sang - which included a duet from Die Walkure in the pre-Norma concert, and major solo parts in the Donizetti's Miserere. This is decidedly not the kind of uninvolved, milquetoast singing that has become de rigeur at many regional American opera companies. Landry's technical foundation is solid, so this voice that sounds born to sing heavily orchestrated, hefty tenor roles such as Wagner, Puccini, and late Verdi, was equally comfortable in bel canto, for he showed no strain in handling ornamented passages at all. The audience rewarded this gifted singer's hard work and dedication with vociferous applause. Even with the almost uniformly high quality of the rest of the young artists in the program, Landry stood head and shoulders above the rest. He was the cover for de Villarosa in Norma, and had he actually called upon, it might have been an even more remarkable performance than it was. But I feel confident in saying that Landry's day will come.

As to the main event - Maria di Rohan - as with the previous week's Norma, we were treated to an electric performance. The intrepid cover, Jennifer Rowley, crowned herself with laurels. Her performance was simply stunning, doubly so given the limited rehearsal time she's rumored to have had. She has a gleaming, bright tone, an attractive vibrato (reminiscent of Opera Rara's early diva Janet Price); it's a voice with a lot of color, dark at the bottom, bright and gleaming at the top. Her coloratura, while not always perfectly articulated (there was a rather blurred downward run) was quite good, and she has a very nice trill. Her dramatic ability was absolutely stellar - she made the heroine's plight completely believable without overacting.

The role of Chalais was sung by Luciano Bothelo, a young Brazilian tenor who - to judge by this performance - has a very bright future ahead of him. The audience was as smitten as Maria from the moment he strode onto the stage to deliver his first aria. Botelho has a bright, clarion lyric tenor voice; a bit on the small side, but agile and under complete control - I couldn't resist fantasizing his re-creating some of the forgotten Rubini roles. His technique is simply terrific, his approach to singing restrained yet passionate. This is a tenor who doesn't need to belt every note - and Botelho has them up to a d-flat. However, when he partnered with Scott Bearden's enormous baritone, the voice was clear and bright enough to hold its own.

Bearden's Chevreuse was uneven vocally but very exciting. It took him some time to warm up -his aria di sortita was delivered in a rather uninvolved way, and there were some raw, rather hoarse notes - particularly in the top of the voice. However, by the midpoint of the opera he had come into his own, and his delivery of the scene in which Chevreuse learns of Maria's betrayal was spine-tingling. Chevreuse's loss became heartrending, his anger terrible. The lady seated next to me (a complete stranger, and as I later discovered, a member of Caramoor's fundraising committee!) was clutching my arm throughout the last 20 minutes of the opera!

For both this and the Norma, conductor Will Crutchfield led exemplary performances. His tempi were beautifully chosen, he was sensitive to dynamics, and unafraid of savoring the longer, more languid melodic lines, but was also willing to crack the whip in the harder-hitting passages. He gets better and better with each passing year, it seems. The audience, chorus and orchestra are to be commended for braving the soupy heat and humidity - most audience members were fanning themselves in time to the music!

(There's a chance to see a fully staged Maria di Rohan at this year's Buxton Festival)

 

 

 

Page initially published in  October 2010