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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Opera Review: Little Death Apples

Eve Queler Encores L'Africaine.
We'll say this for librettist Eugene Scribe: 
he came up with an original way to kill off his heroine in L'Africaine.
Wednesday night's one-shot concert performance of L'Africaine was a great evening that may do much to return this neglected work to the regular repertory. Eve Queler celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Opera Orchestra of New York's first performance of that opera, with this performance at Avery Fisher Hall. Chiara Taigi sang the title role, with Marcello Giordani as the explorer Vasco da Gama.

The performance opened with an audio treat: a recording of Richard Tucker singing "O Paradis" at that 1972 performance . For his part, Mr. Giordani did his best to emulate that late tenor, singing the French text with a warm tone and making good use of his vocal reserves throughout the long opera. "O Paradis", in the fourth act was a show-stopper, but that famous number paled next to the intense cabaletta that followed.


Mr. Giordani also showed himself well suited to ensemble work, participating in Meyerbeer's complex, often contrapuntal trios, quartets and sextets. He brought nobility and charm to the role of Vasco, a gallivanting explorer who acts on impulse and repeatedly lands in deep manchineel several times over the course of the evening.

The plot of L'Africaine features Vasco caught between two loves: the noble Inèz (Ellie Dehn) and the title character, Selika. (Selika is not actually African--she is an Indian queen who rules a large island that may be Madagascar.) Ms. Dehn started the evening's vocal fireworks in the first act. She was equalled and exceeded by Ms. Taigi, who presented a formidable, silver-edged instrument that recalled a young Deborah Voigt. Sparks flew between the two divas, especially in their Act V confrontation.

As Nélusko, the slave who is secretly in love with Selika, South African baritone Fikile Mvinjelwa gave a strong performance, making this figure out to be a real, three-dimensional character and not some grotesque, racist parody. His Act III aria with chorus, evoking the legendary African storm gods (and sung just before a typhoon wrecks the ship) was a highlight of the evening. Mr. Mvinjelwa removed his tuxedo jacket before singing the number, giving his performance a "get-down-to-business" feel that matched his sturdy baritone.
Act III of L'Africaine as staged at the Paris Opera, 1864
The finale of the opera, in which Selika commits a sleep-induced suicide by laying down beneath the poisonous boughs of the only manchineel tree in Africa (the trees are native to the Caribbean) is a dream-like, extended sequence for soprano that may have inspired the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung. Ms. Taigi, (changing into a third gown for her finale) proved to have the vocal stamina to sing this long, difficult scene accompanied by a wordless chorus and Mr. Mvinjelwa.

Throughout this long evening, much joy was to be found in Meyerbeer's music, which sounded familiar, even to an ear that had never heard L'Africaine. That might be because this smash opera, which premiered in 1864 (shortly after the composer's death) was a key influence on the development of Italian and French opera in the second half of the 19th century. The score anticipates beloved operatic moments like the tenor-baritone duet in Don Carlos, the barcarolle from Les Contes d'Hoffmann, and the slumberiffic finale of Wagner's Die Walküre.

As the final bars played, Ms. Queler brought her opera orchestra to a halt for the last time, putting the capstone on a life in music that has brought much joy to New York's opera lovers. Next year, Italian maestro Alberto Veronesi takes over the OONY. He will be building on the foundations of Ms. Queler's efforts.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.