Sunday, July 7, 2013

They wanted to dance, but it was too hot

Five-act French "grand" operas are a puzzle. They were of a time and place, and very popular indeed in that time and place, namely early- to mid-19th century Paris. Staging them in our time and place in their original form isn't always quite so easy. They were quite long, and required at least one extended ballet sequence. They required highly skilled bel canto singing and an understanding of the musical style and genre from the singers and the pit. And they were in French, for goodness sake!

Verdi was no dummy. He wanted to join his countrymen Donizetti and Bellini in raking in l'argent creating new audiences for his works. Five-act French operas are also proving profitable for modern companies that can produce them, because opera fans ranging from cognoscenti to curiosity seekers come from far and wide to hear and see them.

I was fortunate Saturday, July 6, to venture to northern Westchester County and enjoy one of Mr. Verdi's French masterworks, Les Vȇpres Siciliennes, at the Caramoor Festival. Often, upon hearing works that are neglected, I can tell you why they're neglected, and might even suggest that it's not a bad thing they are neglected. Not so with Les Vȇpres Siciliennes. Oh, I can talk about the difficulties of mounting an opera like Vȇpres (unless you're fluent in French, just say "vep"), even in the four-act Italian version I Vespri Siciliani, but I would never suggest performing this opera any less. Quite the contrary--I want to see it produced much more! But this opera is very much a star vehicle. If only there was a major opera house nearby in the habit of producing rarely performed operas to feature popular divas!

Angela Meade
Photo credit: Devon Cass
The diva I heard singing Hélène in Vȇpres was the lovely Angela Meade, no stranger to these pages. In the past I have praised Miss Meade's bel canto singing--her legato, her even scale, her dynamic control, the drama she can infuse into her singing. It pleases me to say I heard all of this in her performance on Saturday. I recently suggested she sounded a little tired when I saw her perform Norma on stage at the Kennedy Center (the last performance of a long run), but I heard no such fatigue in her Vȇpres. While her top in the first act might not have had all the warmth it achieved in the remainder of the very long opera, I still call it a very fine performance vocally. I do wish director Steven Tharp had elicited more of a consistent appearance of involvement from Miss Meade.

Tenor John Osborn was Henri, Hélène's love interest in this typical 19th-century story of political oppression and uprising, forbidden love, and scheming of every sort. (All that's missing is a baby on a bonfire.) Mr. Osborn has long been a favorite bel canto tenor in European houses, singing even the highest Bellini roles with a sound fuller than your typical tenorino. He is now branching out into beefier bel canto roles--and although it's Verdi, I'd say Henri qualifies--allowing the color and fullness that typically comes with middle age to infuse his still very high voice. (Although his web site lists Elvino in La Sonnambula as his next engagement, it also lists Pollione, Hoffmann, and Werther in coming months.) Mr. Osborn's performance was impassioned and full of vocal warmth and beauty of line. He received well-deserved roars of approval at the curtain call.

Marco Nistico
Photo credit: Dan Demetriad
Because a soprano needs a bass to talk to, we enjoyed Burak Bilgili as Jean Procida. His bio lists many admirable accomplishments, and on hearing his beautiful singing I am not surprised. He gave his role the required menace as a political conspirator and warmth as friend and advisor to Hélène. And because a tenor needs a rival, we also enjoyed Marco Nisticò as Guy de Montfort, French governor of Sicily. We also learn, as he does, that he is the father of Henri, his political and romantic rival. Mr. Nisticò was mentioned in these pages as a very fine Dulcamara in the 2011 New York City Opera production of L'Elisir d'Amore. I liked him even more as Montfort, very much admiring his beautiful singing and his clear portrayal of Montfort's conflicting emotions.

As we have come to expect, Will Crutchfield drew a very fine performance out of the Orchestra of St. Lukes. The orchestra was awarded thunderous applause for its sensitive playing with singers and for the ballet interludes (not omitted, as one might have expected). The title of this post comes from one of the projected titles explaining the action of the ballet we were hearing but not seeing.

Minor roles were quite capably filled by Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and Apprentice Artists.

Not one to waste an afternoon of sweltering heat outdoors, my opera-going companion and I also attended open-air lectures and concerts Saturday afternoon, including excellent lectures by Mr. Crutchfield on the singing style of the French Romantic period and Mr. Tharp on Les Vȇpres Siciliennes specifically. The concerts included Italian composers for the French operatic tradition dating back to the late 18th century and French contemporaries of Verdi composing for the Paris Opera. Among the standouts in these concerts I include bass-baritone Joseph Beutel, who sings beautifully and can trill (although he looks like he's about 12 years old); tenor Noah Baetge, whom we have seen in these pages singing the Verdi Requiem rather well at Carnegie Hall; and mezzo Jennifer Feinstein, who, with Mr. Baetge and tenor Cameron Schutza gave us an affecting trio from Mr. Donizetti's rarity Élisabeth.

Complaints? Very few, aside from the heat and legendary uncomfortable seating at Caramoor's Venetian Theater. Almost worth the discomfort to hear and see an opera new to me that deserves to be a hit parade opera, sung very well, and presented with great enthusiasm and skill.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Ahhh… I'm just revisiting this now because I heard John Osborn's Werther tonight, and suspected the answer to "Where has he been all my life?!?" was a) in Europe b) in bel canto or c) both, and I further suspected that you would know of his bel canto chops… :)