|Areti Giovanou, Madison Marie McIntosh, Claire Stadtmueller, and Paolo Buffagni|
All the way up in Washington Heights, near the George Washington Bridge, is a magnificent venue called United Palace. Resplendent in gold leaf and carvings with impressive chandeliers, the building appears to have originated in the 19th c. but was, in fact, built in 1930 as a house for film and vaudeville. It comprises a 3400 seat theater that made us wish that the audience for opera would grow to fill it. But it also has an intimate foyer that seats about a hundred people, just right for an intimate recital.
Sitting there and listening to arias and duets by Bellini and Rossini, we felt as if we were back in the 19th c. There is even a grand staircase down which our starring soprano descended in a flowing gown and cape, with golden ornaments suggestive of Druid priestesshood (if that's even a word).
It's been some time since we've seen a full production of Norma and we hope we won't have to wait too long for another one. Meanwhile we are content with hearing the important arias and duets performed by a cast who could take on the difficulties. For Bellini, one needs powerful voices that retain the subtleties required to weave the composer's long legato lines, yet have the flexibility for his elaborate embellishments.
In the role of the Roman Pollione, we heard tenor Paolo Buffagni whose performance as Mario Cavaradossi impressed us so much in an Opera Ithaca production of Puccini's Tosca a couple months ago. We believe he comes from Pavarotti's birthplace (Modena) where there must be something special in the food or the wine. His expository "Meco all'altar di Venere", which opened the program, was marked by dynamic subtleties and the phrasing of a true Italian.
The final duet "In mia man" required a different more emotional approach as Pollione tries to reason with Norma, performed by the powerhouse soprano Claire Stadtmueller. Ms. Stadtmueller has a powerful instrument with an interesting vibrato that lends emotional import to her singing. Her portrayal of a scorned woman, whose fury has not been equalled in Hell, was arresting.
In "Casta diva" we particularly enjoyed the vocalise part and Bellini's lovely arpeggi in the piano, so well played by Areti Giovanou. In "Ah, bello a me ritorna" we admired the clarity in her upward leaps and the fireworks of fioritura. "Dormo entrambi", with its lovely piano introduction, was so well acted that we could actually see the sleeping children through her eyes and felt our heart pounding when she drew a dagger from her belt.
Perhaps, however, our favorite moment was when she joined voices in perfect harmony with the impressive young mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh, whose growth we have been following for a few years now. The two women go through a panoply of emotions until accord is reached, and Ms. McIntosh negotiated Adalgisa's embellishments in the upper register with accuracy and aplomb.
The dessert of this bel canto banquet was Ms. McIntosh's performance of "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. We have heard her sing Rosina's aria many times and it just keeps getting better and better. The spunkiness of the character was expressed through some rather original decorations of the vocal line. The upward skips were smoothly negotiated. The strength in her lower register, combined with the agility in the upper register, makes her a unique talent.
The evening was part of the Lobby Series, events showcasing local artists for the community of Washington Heights. The United Palace of Cultural Arts, under the direction of Mike Fitelson, is performing a highly worthwhile service to the community. Admission is free; donations are encouraged. Although 175th and Broadway sounds very far away, it was easily accessible on the A train, and only a half block walk from the subway station. We were delighted by this discovery as well as by the artistry of the program.
(c) meche kroop