|Eamon Pereyra, Kevin Thompson, Peter Scott Drackley, Catherine Martin, Keith Chambers, Steven LaBrie, and April Martin in Donizetti's La Favorita|
Planet Opera gathered in full force last night to hear a rarely performed Donizetti masterpiece on which the master lavished an unending stream of gorgeous melodies, and to which Maestro Keith Chambers gave a stunning production. Half the cast was unknown to us so we felt as if we were making one discovery after another. It is quite something to sit in a steamy church (The Center at West Park Presbyterian Church) on hard pews and never notice the discomfort.
For this we credit six superb singers and Maestro Chambers who commanded his orchestra with precision and attention to subtleties. We also credit Maestra Eve Queler who provided the scores in a generous gift to New Amsterdam Opera, a relatively new company that merits our support. You would not have gotten to hear this opera at the Metropolitan Opera which hasn't tackled it since 1976 when the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti sang the role of Fernando.
M. Queler presented it twice and we were actually in attendance in 2001 when Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang the role of King Alfonso. We were new to opera at that time and not writing about it. But we subscribed to Opera Orchestra of New York and sat in the balcony of Carnegie Hall, thrilling to Donizetti's beautiful bel canto lines. Last night's performance was dedicated to the recently deceased and sorely missed baritone.
Although the libretto was originally written in French and premiered in 1840, we were very happy to hear it in one of two Italian versions. Italian simply sings better! Although there were no titles, a minimal knowledge of Italian combined with the acting of the singers made everything clear.
Most people know of the existence of this opera through two of its most famous arias, the mezzo aria "O, mio Fernando" and the tenor aria "Spirito gentil". But there isn't a single aria or duet in this opera that would be unwelcome in a recital. That being said, our wish list would include a production of the very performance we heard last night (in concert style) but with sets and costumes. We would not wish for a single change in the cast. They were perfect!
It's always a pleasure to hear a mezzo-soprano in a starring role and Catherine Martin was a brilliant choice for Leonora, singing with true mezzo sound, lovely phrasing, and enough expression that we understood all her ambivalent feelings. Her voice was centered throughout the range and she left nothing to be desired in her portrayal. Leonora had been brought to Castile by the King but relegated to the position of mistress, since King Alfonso was already wed to the daughter of Baldassare, prior of a monastery and tight with the Pope.
Small wonder that she fell in love with Fernando who fell in love with her and left his position as novice, suffering the disdain of Baldassare, who warned him about the evil world outside the monastery and predicted his return.
As Fernando we enjoyed the tenor of Peter Scott Drackley who managed to be both agile and full voiced. Without using his face or body, his voice conveyed the abrupt change of feeling he experienced when he learned that his new bride Leonora had been the King's mistress. Of course, at the end of the opera, he forgives her and must once more change the color of his voice before she dies in his arms.
King Alfonso is not a bad sort at all and baritone Steven La Brie gave a ground breaking performance that brought thunderous applause from the audience. Mr. La Brie is one of three cast members that we know and we have been following his rise for several years. We just heard him last month but it was impossible to evaluate how much he has grown because he was singing contemporary music in English. To really appreciate a voice, we want to hear 19th c. Italian. Our conclusion is that Mr. La Brie is phenomenal on every level--tonal clarity, phrasing, coloring, flexibility--it was all there.
As the smug Baldassare, bass Kevin Thompson turned in his customary powerful performance, filling the resonant sanctuary with depth and breadth. In the struggle between Church and State, his relationship with the Pope put him in a position of power, threatening the King with excommunication if he divorces the Queen (his daughter).
In a reversal of fach, the mezzo Queen is served by a soprano handmaiden, in this case the excellent April Martin (no relation) whose voice soared into the stratospheric reaches of the sanctuary, proving the maxim that "there are no small roles".
Similarly, the smarmy plotter Don Gasparo was portrayed by tenor Eamon Pereyra, a tenor we have heard a couple times at ARE Opera. He was an excellent Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi and merits further starring roles by dint of lovely tone which he seemingly produces without any strain whatsoever.
It is rare that we hear an opera in which every single singer excels. Props to Maestro Chambers who is not only the Principal Conductor of New Amsterdam Opera but also its Artistic Director. He has done impressive work with meager resources and we hope that our readers will help to remedy those meager resources with a handsome donation!
The orchestra responded well to his baton and from the very first ominous introduction in the lower strings, bursting into a tutti and then a flood of melody, we knew we were in good hands. We would like to single out the excellent Concertmaster Stephan Fillare, the superb first cello James Pedersen, the harpist Kathryn Sloat, and the organist Adam Nielsen, who added so much to the final scene in the monastery.
Furthermore, both male and female choruses sounded well-rehearsed and sang with clarity.
There are so many 19th c. tropes in this story--love triangles, Kings losing love, double standards for women, the religious life as sanctuary for those disappointed in love and by life, the battle between Church and State, and tragic endings. The characters are larger than life and the stories involve great passions. No wonder we prefer them to contemporary operas! These stories inspired great music. If we wanted to call attention to every aria, duet, and ensemble that touched our heart last night, we would be writing until next Monday.
(c) meche kroop