|Erin Brittain, Tim Murray, Oliver Sewell, Madison Marie McIntosh, Hidenori Inoue, and Alanna Fraize|
Once upon a time our parents read us the softened version of Cinderella, cleaned up so as not to frighten small children; you know, the Disneyfied version. Since then we have read the original violent and scary versions by Charles Perrault and Wilhelm Grimm. We do not know which version librettist Jacopo Ferretti adapted but he wrote the libretto in three weeks, replacing the wicked step-mother with an abusive step-father and the fairy godmother with the kindly tutor Alidoro. Similarly, the glass slipper was replaced by a bracelet. It is believed that the circumstances of production in 1817 did not allow for elaborate magical effects.
Nonetheless, there are elaborate magical effects in the music, created by Gioacchino Rossini in barely more than three weeks! That guy could sure work under pressure. He was but 25 years old and already had Il Barbiere di Siviglia under his belt.
Last night we witnessed some rather magical effects produced by a fledgling opera company whose future success we anticipate with all the enthusiasm engendered by the creativity we observed. General Director Kathleen Spencer and Artistic Director Megan Gillis share a common mission--to make opera intimate and accessible to one and all, so that the audience can feel a part of the opera. Thus they created ARE Opera--for you, for us, for the singers, for everyone.
Readers will recall how greatly we favor experiences that are up close and personal. Gone are the days when we peered through binoculars trying to figure out who was singing that beautiful vocal line in the midst of overwhelming and cinematic sets. We prefer to feel a part of the action, to feel like we know the characters and understand them. This does not require the huge voices that one hears at The Metropolitan Opera but gives young artists an opportunity to learn a role early in their artistic career and to share in the intimacy with the audience. In complementary fashion, we get to share an intimacy with them as well.
The cast we heard last night was exemplary with many of them graduates of Manhattan School of Music and thus well remembered by us from student productions over the past few years. We appreciated their fine performances then and now we can appreciate their artistic growth.
In the lead role, we heard Madison Marie McIntosh, about whom we have written many many times as she has pursued her artistic journey. At first we were not sure that transitioning from the soprano to the mezzo-soprano fach was such a good idea but every time we hear her we realize that she is a singer who knows her own potential and is fulfilling her mission. Rossini wrote this role for a contralto but there is nothing MMM cannot do well. With no loss to her scintillating upper register and flexibility in the coloratura passages, there is a new depth and breadth at the bottom of the register.
Along with this very special combination of skills comes an impressive dramatic ability. Her Angelina was much put-upon by Clorinda and Tisbe but she showed an inner strength and defiance in "Una volta c'era un re". In spite of the innocence and humility, one realizes that this character, like the singer, will achieve much. When she reprises this aria in the second act, Ms. McIntosh colored it differently--as a happy woman in love.
As her Prince Charming Don Ramiro, Oliver Sewell produced the kind of tenor voice that we love to hear--pure with a lovely vibrato. The tenor aria in Act II "Si, ritrovarla, io juro" is incredibly difficult and Mr. Sewell negotiated it well. His "9" will be a "10" when he learns to float the money note in the cabaletta. (In this production there is no chorus to hide any flaws.) His chemistry with Ms. McIntosh worked well to the advantage of both of them and their duet was sensational.
Baritone Tim Murray made a fine Dandini, the Prince's valet; he enjoyed being Prince for a Day and enjoyed exposing the unpleasant grasping characters of Angelina's step-family. He sang with a fluent pleasing baritone and his fine acting added a great deal to the performance.
Bass Hidenori Inoue made a magnificent Don Magnifico, the threatening step-father. His deeply resonant instrument filled the room with sound and his acting was flawless. One can hate the character and love the singer! Just watch him abusing Angelina, encouraging his own daughters, ingratiating himself to Dandini (who is disguised as the Prince), showing false humility on his knees, and trying to make it up to his daughter when he realizes she will marry the Prince. In this wide range of emotion and behavior, there was not a false note, not vocally, not dramatically.
Another bass, Brett Vogel, was just fine as the Prince's tutor Alidoro. He is obliged to approach Don Magnifico's home as a beggar, putting the two step-sisters to the kindness test, which they fail. Later, he casts off his disguise and brings Angelina to the ball. His character always evokes our sympathy.
And now we get to the two step-sisters. Soprano Erin Brittain as Tisbe, and mezzo-soprano Alanna Fraize as Clorinda. Again, we love the singers and laugh at the characters--two silly, vain, and spoiled girls. Both performers have lovely voices but it is the facial expressions and gestures that we remember best; caricatures of disagreeable people can be very funny and provided a fine balance with Angelina's sweetness.
Rossini's music always sparkles and everyone in the cast got a chance to shine--but it is the ensemble writing which never fails to impress us. The arrangement of the playing space allowed physical separation of the singers such that we experienced the ensembles stereophonically. That was a new and exciting experience.
Maestro Jonathan Heaney conducted with verve; he just coached and played for Mr. Inoue's graduation recital at Manhattan School of Music which we so enjoyed. Andrew Sun played the piano score so effectively that we didn't miss the orchestra.
Stage Director Claire Sparks was most effective in telling the story. Although the space had a stage, most of the action took place in the center of the large room with audience members facing each other across the performance area. This gave the cast plenty of room to move around; it was a highly kinetic performance. Simple props included a table and chairs, a bench, and a large trunk. Nothing more was necessary.
Costuming was simple, as befits a shoestring company. Vast quantities of tulle were utilized to create costumes both romantic and silly. Even the make-up was on point.
This company will not remain at the shoestring level; we are sure of it. There are exciting plans for the future, including a double bill comprising Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and....a surprise. This is opera for the entire family--sufficient in musical values to please experienced opera goers and accessible enough for "newbies" and children.
The only improvement we could offer would be to show the titles on the opposing walls. Having them at one end of the room obliged audience members to choose between the action and the titles. Fortunately, even a modest knowledge of Italian would serve because the acting was so illustrative. Italian diction was flawless.
There will be two performances remaining. The cast will remain the same except for Ms. McIntosh who will sing at the late matinee on Sunday. Since it is Mother's Day, consider treating your mother or surrogate mother to two hours of enlivening entertainment that seems to fly by within an hour. Just hearing Ms. McIntosh's "Non piu mesta" at the end will melt her heart!
(c) meche kroop