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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Opera Review: Truth And Consequences

Le Villi and La Navarraise at the Bard Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sean Pannikar (left) and Talise Trevigne in a tense moment from Puccini's Le Villi.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2016 Bard Music Festival.
This summer's Bard Music Festival is focused almost entirely on the music of Giacomo Puccini, the Italian opera composer who stands at the end of a four hundred-year tradition of opera as that country's dominant art form. From his early competition pieces to the unfinished wonders of his final opera Turandot, Puccini was the climax of a long line of composers and somehow the end of the road.

On Sunday afternoon, the American Symphony Orchestra and music director Leon Botstein offered a program featuring a double bill of short two-act operas: Puccini's first opera Le Villi ("The Witches") paired  with La Navarraise, a French opera in the verismo tradition by composer Jules Massenet. The works were presented in a semi-staged concert setting with visual projections by Andrew Lazarow, including the intriguing use of a three-dimensional "Pepper's Ghost" effect on either side of the stage.

Le Villi is the least known, least heard and least performed of Puccini's stage works, despite having a recording in the catalogue with Placido Domingo in the lead role and a fearsome tenor aria that brings the house down whenever it shows up on recital programs. The opera shows Puccini attempting to adapt German myth to the Italian stage, with orchestral writing that contrasts the composer's own innate lyricism with dark orchestral colors drawn from the paint-box of Weber and Wagner.

Tenor Sean Pannikar shone as Roberto, the hapless, callow lead whose own damnation plays like an alternate version ofTannhäuser without all that pesky eroticism. Talise Trevigne, who stunned audiences earlier this summer in Mascagni's Iris went through another round of death and resurrection, first as Roberto's beloved Anna and then as her vengeful spirit who compels her feckless fella to literally dance himself to death. It's at once marvelous and ridiculous stuff, though Mr. Pannikar made the aria "Torna ai felici dí" worth the long trip up to the Bard College campus.

As lecturer Arman Schwartz pointed out before the concert, there was a distant but somewhat heated competition between Puccini and Massenet. The French composer's setting of the novel Manon Lescaut inspired Puccini to write his own version in 1893, just nine years after Massenet's Manon. Massenet returned the "favor" with his own La Navarraise, a red-blooded verismo shocker sung in his own language.

As the titular girl from Navarre, Nora Sourouzian was a powerful presence, attempting to marry her beloved Araquil in the middle of a raging Spanish civil war. To earn her dowry and satisfy the marriage demands of Araquil's stern father, she goes by night across enemy lines and murders the leader of the opposing insurgent force. When her payment for this deed is mistaken by her lover as being the proceeds from prostitution, she goes utterly mad in true verismo style.

The opera underlines its military setting with fusillades of gran casa and snare drum, and an orchestra that falls suddenly silent as shells fly overhead. Mr. Pannikar returned as Araquil, a character no wiser than Roberto. Bass-baritones Paul Whelan, Levi Hernandez and Steven LaBrie provided support, but this opera is all about the lady in the leading role. Ms. Souraizian gave a barn-burning performance, outshining the rest of the cast and making a case that La Navarraise, like Le Villi deserves some place in the repertory.

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