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.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

100% and 100 degrees

David Pershall, Maestro Alvise M. Casellati, Larisa Martinez, and Cody Austin

We will have much to say about last night's Opera Italiana in Central Park but let us begin by lauding the singers who performed with 100% commitment in sweltering 100 degree weather. No one less compelling than soprano Larisa Martinez could have pulled us out of our air-conditioned home; her prodigious talent was matched by that of tenor Cody Austin and baritone David Pershall, whose award-winning performances (Giulio Gari and George London) we wrote about in 2016. Last night he made a fine Figaro in the "Largo al Factotum".

We consider ourself to be rather good at predicting future stardom and Ms. Martinez' gifts impressed us from the first time we heard her five years ago, when we found her Barbarina overwhelmingly "winsome". A superb Musetta followed and we have been a great fan ever since. She has fame written all over her and witnessing her rising star has been a privilege.

Although we loved re-hearing Musetta's waltz last night what impressed us the most was her investment in the role of Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata. This role makes incredible demands on the soprano, not just vocally but dramatically. What makes her one of our very favorite female characters is her emotional growth.

In her duet with an appropriately lovestruck Mr. Austin ("Un di, felice") Ms. Martinez successfully portrayed the outwardly indifferent woman who secretly wants true love in her life.  In her confrontation with Germont père (Mr. Pershall), "Pure siccome un angelo", she colored her voice with dignity and restraint with flashes of anger and terror peeking through. Reunited with Alfredo at the end of the opera, (the duet "Parigi, o cara") she colored her voice with a very touching vulnerability and hopefulness.

The duets Ms. Martinez performed from Puccini's Madama Butterfly were excellent as well but were all from the romantic part of the opera and we were left wondering how she might have shown the emotional growth of Cio-Cio San. Mr. Austin's warm tenor made him the perfect romantic partner. We heard just about the entire end of Act I!  This was preceded by a duet between the upstanding consul Sharpless (Mr. Pershall) and the callow Lt. Pinkerton (Mr. Austin) who shows the audience his true colors.

There were other delights on the program. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan was joined by "vocalist" Helga Davis for an arrangement of Paola Prestini's Oceanic Verses. The shimmering texture of Ms. Prestini's orchestral writing were balm to the ear but we couldn't understand a word of Ms. Zetlan's Italian. Although the tonal quality of her voice was superb, we couldn't even tell it was Italian until we looked at the libretto. We cannot fault the sound design (uncredited) because the other singers were perfectly clear. We wonder whether the tessitura remained too long in the upper register. By contrast, Ms. Davis' smoky low tones were kind to the text, even though it was in English.

There were orchestral treasures to delight us as well. Maestro Alvise M. Casellati conducted a spirited reading of a couple of Rossini overtures that reminded us of the composer's gift for both memorable melody and rhythmic thrust. The overture from La Gazza Ladra came early in the program and had us tapping our toes.  The overture from William Tell was performed in its entirety with a profusion of themes that could only be described as "l'abbondanza". There was happily no haste to get to "The Lone Ranger" theme and we enjoyed the slower lyrical section equally, if not more.

It must be noted that the orchestra comprised seasoned players from The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as well as gifted young musicians from our three local conservatories. From this diverse group, Maestro Casellati melded a fine unit.

The evening was produced and hosted by Dani Bedoni, sporting bejewelled butterfly sunglasses.  Her warmth and enthusiasm exceeded her familiarity with the Italian language and opera. She graciously brought to the stage Ms. Prestini and the teenaged Pauline Castro, a member of the New York Philharmonic young composers program, whose symphonic work opened the program.

The event was listed as a free event at the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park; like so many other cultural events in the city, the benefits were heavily weighted towards the well-to-do. Only supporters got to sit in the chairs set up behind velvet ropes; we were rather impressed by their Italian style. Everyone looked as if they had just come from the salon or the spa. Men wore suits and ties. Women were groomed to a fare-thee-well. Meanwhile the paesani of NYC sat on the cement off to the side or on chairs they lugged from home. It may have been a smart move to watch the livestream from home!

The singers sang in the bandshell with the orchestra situated in front at audience level. Maestro Casellati occupied a large platform and we wished the singers had also been on the platform. If you have seen the fuzzy photos on our FB page (Voce di Meche) you will realize how far the audience was from the bandshell. Actually we were on the second row. For the finale "Libiamo", the singers moved toward us, making for a better experience. We were invited to sing along but no one did.

We just remembered that we were among those who vigorously protested the tearing down of the Naumberg Bandshell some years ago. We are so glad our efforts succeeded. What a great use it was put to last night!

(c) meche kroop

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