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.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Ta'u Pupu'a and Michelle Trovato as Canio and Nedda in Pagliacci
Last night we heard a pair of old chestnuts roasted into new life by Martha Cardona Opera. We cannot recall being as deeply affected by other productions of this pair of verismo operas--known as Cav and Pag. There is something about being up close and personal that provides dramatic and vocal thrills, as long as the voices are good.  And the voices we heard last night were WAY beyond good.  They were GREAT! Artistic Director Daniel Cardona has a knack for finding artists with big voices and casting them appropriately.

With such superb artistry onstage and an excellent orchestra, we are content to sacrifice elaborate costuming and sets. Let us give credit to Maestro Gregory Buchalter for developing the orchestral skills of his fine musicians and guiding them through an intense performance. We particularly enjoyed the contributions of the uncredited harpist, the flute, and the cellos. The drinking song of Cavalleria Rusticana was accompanied by some fine pizzicato in the string section, setting us up for the tragedy to come.

Let us also give credit to Chorus Master William Hicks for providing crisp clean choral singing. And finally, let us credit David O. Roberts for his Costume Design. We know the budget for costumes was small but Mr. Roberts always makes much out of little and what he provided was effective.

Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana is usually paired with Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. The former takes place in a small town in Sicily in the 19th c. and the latter takes place in a small town in Calabria in the 1860's.  Both deal with Old World passions and morality. In our "whatever" generation, it seems strange that people killed each other out of sexual jealousy--but they still do, as one can see in the daily newspapers!

It likewise seems strange that women who violated codes of sexual morality would become societal outcasts; but one must look no further than the Middle-East for daily examples of honor killings, which is far worse. Only in a free society can women enjoy their sexual freedom. Let us not take that for granted.

Since we gave a lengthy review of Cardona's production of Mascagni's masterpiece exactly one month ago (review is archived and available through the search bar), let us just mention the performances of new cast members, before moving on to Pagliacci.

Soprano Cheryl Warfield's emotional intensity and ample tone made for a fine performance as Santuzza, the woman seduced and abandoned by Turridu, sung by Ta'u Pupu'a who was sensational last month and has only grown in the role, which he will be performing with Cedar Rapids Opera next month.

Taking over the role of Mama Lucia was mezzo-soprano Milica Nikcevic whom we first reviewed three years ago at Dell'Arte Opera. It is exciting to witness the development of a substantial voice like hers. She created a character who was sympathetic to Santuzza but, appropriately, far more concerned with her son who misbehaved with a married woman.

Baritone SeungHyeon Baek reprised his role as Alfio, the betrayed husband and he has truly made the role his own. We could not imagine a better performance.

Natalie Rose Havens appeared once more as the seductive Lola who wants to have her cake and eat it too. She deceives her husband but acts holier-than-thou toward Santuzza. 

The libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti is a powerful one, adapted from a short story by Giovanni Verga. The storytelling is concise and powerful, keeping one on the edge of one's seat. The tragedy is foreshadowed as the opera begins by the mention of blood over Lola's door.

The tragedy of Pagliacci is also foreshadowed, when Canio tells the villagers that he would not tolerate advances of other men toward his wife Nedda, whom he had rescued from near starvation. Leoncavallo wrote both libretto and music. In this opera, life imitates art and commedia del'arte is anything but a comedy.

A visiting troupe of performers include the leader Canio (who portrays Pagliaccio in their performance), his unhappy wife Nedda (who portrays Colombina onstage), the envious and deformed Tonio who lusts after Nedda and seeks revenge when she rejects him (playing the servant Taddeo in the performance), and the clown Beppe, (who portrays Arlecchino in the performance).

Nedda's real life innamorato is Silvio, who wants Nedda to elope with him. When the actions of the commedia performance take an ugly turn, Silvio is drawn into the action and tragedy ensues.

The singers were all splendid. Mr. Pupu'a reappeared as Canio and utilized his powerful tenor in the anguished "Vesti la giubba", generating sympathy for the character--even as we know he will lose it in front of the audience when he forgets he is acting in a play. 

Michelle Trovato used her amply proportioned soprano to portray Nedda. Her yearning for the freedom that birds enjoy in "Stridono lassu" was touching and her ambivalence about leaving Canio for Silvio could break one's heart. We greatly enjoyed her commedia-style acting as Colombina.

SeungHyeon Baek was perfect as the vengeful Tonio--so different from the upstanding character he portrayed in Cavalleria Rusticana. We have been writing about Mr. Baek for a couple of years and have enjoyed witnessing his artistic growth.

Baritone Colin Levin made a fine Silvio but the big surprise of the evening was Mexican tenor Humberto Borboa who stepped into the role of Beppe on short notice and wowed the audience with his portrayal. He has a lovely timbre to his voice and delivered Arlecchino's melodic serenade to generous audience applause.

Martha Cardona Opera has come a long way since we began writing about them and there are great plans for the future in terms of a full production with sets. We are watching out for their Hansel und Gretel in the Spring, which will be performed both in German and in English.  Regular readers won't have to guess which one we will choose to attend!

The company has achieved 501-C3 status as a non-profit and would welcome your contributions of whatever size or type.  www.marthacardonaopera.com. Christmas presents are particularly invited. Spare your sister that ugly sweater and spare your brother that unwearable tie! Make a donation instead to support the art form you love! And get a deduction on your taxes as a bonus.

(c) meche kroop

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