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, May 14, 2016


Cast of Malvina Di Scozia with Director Judith Barnes and Conductor Hans Schellevis

Last week, Opera Orchestra of New York presented a rarely heard opera and this week it was Vertical Player Repertory that gave us a similar gift. We know OONY well but somehow never managed to catch up with VPR (which has been around since 1998)  but we will now consider ourself fans forever.  What a glorious evening we spent with this fine group--hearing music that may well have been lost forever.

The story of its unearthing may be as interesting as the story of the opera itself. Production Curator Thea Cook has long collected the works of one Giovanni Pacini, an Italian composer of the 19th c. This prolific composer is known to have composed about 75 operas which were rather successful in his time, although eclipsed by the more famous Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and ultimately Verdi.

Ultimately Ms. Cook was able to track down a score for Malvina Di Scozia, a turbulent tragedy about a dysfunctional royal family that premiered in Naples in 1851. The famous librettist Salvadore Cammarano, who wrote the libretto for Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was obliged to move the story to Scotland (although, unlike Lucia, there is nothing innately Scottish about the story) to avoid offending the King of Naples.

There were other problems. The tenor withdrew and Pacini was obliged to rewrite much of the music, giving us that rare opera without a tenor in a leading role. This must not be considered negatively. Success was snatched from the jaws of defeat, since the resulting combination of voices produced some most interesting sonorities, as we observed last night.

The story was scandalous for its time. Prince Arturo has fathered two children with Malvina, without benefit of wedlock. His father King Malcom has arranged a marriage with Morna, an Irish princess--likely for political reasons.  Just like many 19th c. operas, there is poisoning, revenge, stabbing, kidnapping and slaughter.  This cannot end well.  It does not end well.

But the music, never recorded, definitely deserves to be. And the opera easily merits a full production with sets and costumes. It is unfortunate that the Metropolitan Opera keeps trashing the same old operas in its repertory or presenting contemporary works that no one wants to see twice. There must be treasure troves of undiscovered gems like this one, waiting to be unearthed!

Conductor Hans Schellevis was commissioned to create a performing edition of the score and did a superb job. The score was so well played by pianist Doug Han that it was easy to imagine the sounds of an entire orchestra. Within the confines of a concert presentation involving music stands, Artistic Director Judith Barnes staged the work well.

And the singing!!!  A fine cast was assembled and we were most impressed with the memorable dramatic mezzo-soprano of Karolina Pilou whose voice, once heard, will not be forgotten nor will it be duplicated.  In a world of cookie-cutter voices, it is a treat to hear a unique timbre like this one.  Ms. Pilou portrayed Morna, who gets to be noble in her compassion, as she spares the life of Malvina, the woman with whom her intended has bonded .

Malvina was sung by soprano Angela Leson who sang beautifully and created a sympathetic character as well. Her confidant Edwige was finely sung by soprano Katya Gruzglina.

As Prince Arturo, we heard lyric baritone Ben Bloomfield who handled the role with distinction. Bass Stephan Kirchgraber sang forcefully as King Malcom.

Yes, there was a tenor; Aram Tchobanian portrayed Wortimer, advisor to King Malcom, who creates all the misery in this unhappy family. Men who are scorned can created as much hellish fury as women in the same position!  Bass-baritone Javier Ortiz portrayed Rodwaldo, Captain of the Archers.

There was so much fine music, especially in Act I when the sonorous harmonies of the septet helped to limn the various concerns of each character.  In Act II, Malvina's lament "Stella nemica infausta" was incredibly moving and her duet with Morna was outstanding as well.  Prince Arthur gets his best moments in Act III with his aria "L'orror mi rese immobile" and he also gets a fiery cabaletta

Peter Szep was chorus master and we found the choral numbers to be well prepared.

We can add this one to our wish list of operas we'd like to see produced! Imagine bringing back to life a work that lay dormant for over a century and a half!  Our appreciation goes to everyone involved.

For those of you who would like more detailed information on this stunning work, we refer you to Thea Cook's highly informative article...http://vpropera.org/site/2016/05/07/pacini-and-malvina-di-scozia-a-history/

(c) meche kroop

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