We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Benjamin Robinson and Molly Mustonen (photo by Robert J. Saferstein)

The Little Opera Company That Could--Chelsea Opera--having won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is on a roll.  Last night they presented two one-act works by the prolific Henry Mollicone, with libretti by John S. Bowman.  Each opera was commissioned by an opera company with the stipulation that the work relate to the home town of the company.  The theme of each would appear to be a blending of the past and present.

The brief curtain-raiser, The Face on the Barroom Floor, was commissioned by Central City Opera in 1978 and has been performed annually in Colorado ever since. It involves a love triangle from Gold Rush days, one that comes to a violent end. The story is told within the framework of the present day; the love triangle and its violent end are recapitulated.  

The beautiful Molly Mustonen used her lustrous soprano to good advantage as she portrayed a present day chorister as well as the historic saloon singer.  Lyric tenor Benjamin Robinson sang sweetly as the chorister's beau in the present and also as the starving artist of long ago who pays his bar tab by painting the saloon singer's portrait on the floor.  Baritone John E. Callison, whom we have been hearing and enjoying more and more lately, made a fine bartender.

With meager financial resources, set designer Anna Yates managed to create a very believable saloon with faux stained-glass windows, a simple bar and a few tables and chairs (amusingly occupied by company co-founders Leonarda Priore and Lynne Hayden-Findlay playing denizens of the bar).

Mr. Mollicone was present for the occasion; his piano was accompanied by flutist Kevin Willois and cellist Emily Brausa from the Chelsea Opera Chamber Ensemble. The music is jazzy and there are touches of American folk melodies woven in.

The second and more substantial work on the program, the 1981 Emperor Norton, was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and deals with a legendary character in that city's past.  He was at least eccentric and probably quite mad as he declared himself Emperor.  He died as a derelict on the street.

The interesting treatment of the story is told in a somewhat mystical way.  Two actors are mysteriously summoned to audition for a role in a play about Norton.  The playwright, magnificently performed by one Vira Slywotzky (a singer we just love to hear, calling herself a soprano but with a voice that suggests strong mezzo coloring), uses their help to finish the play.

The two actors--the excellent soprano Rosa Betancourt and the fine tenor David Gordon--are soon joined by an imposing figure from another time.  We shall know him by his costume!  He is, of course, the spirit of Norton (big-voiced baritone Justin Ryan) and he has come to offer correctives to his reputation and the way he is being represented in the play.  The ending has a lovely twist and is marked by a marvelous quartet.

For this opera, conductor Noby Ishida took over. Mr. Mollicone at the piano was joined by violinist Stanichka Dimitrova and cellist Emily Brausa. Thankfully, the music is tonal and lyrical.

We particularly enjoyed Ms. Betancourt's impersonation of the dancer Lola Montez, which had the audience laughing out loud, and her impersonation of a Chinese woman who sang a stunning melismatic aria.

Stage direction by Ms. Findlay was always effective.  Costumes in both operas were also designed by Ms. Findlay with some contributions from the Theater Development Fund Costume Collection.  We particularly admired Ms. Mustonen's saloon singer gown and the period-appropriate 1940's costumes for Emperor Norton.

The only thing missing was titles.  Somehow they are not deemed necessary when an opera is sung in English but, as we frequently point out, English is more difficult to sing and more difficult to understand than Italian or German, especially in the upper registers.  We missed quite a bit of Norton's story because of this.  We heard enough and the acting was sufficiently effective that we understood the story but we would have enjoyed it more if we'd heard all the details.

(c) meche kroop

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