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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.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Opera Review: A Tale of Two Opera Companies

The resuscitated City Opera offers a verismo double bill.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
That's show biz: Canio (Francesco Anile) menaces his unfaithful Nedda (Jessica Rose Cambio)
in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Photo by Sarah Shatz © 2016 New York City Opera
Those who have followed the New York City Opera through its recent cycle of death, rebirth and reincarnation know that the man at the helm of this new version of New York's "other" opera company is Michael Capasso. For many years, Mr. Capasso helmed Dicapo Opera, a boutique company on the Upper East Side that provided a welcome alternative to New Yorkers not wanting to make the pilgrimage to Lincoln Center. His company folded in 2013, around the same time that City Opera did, and it makes a kind of sense that he is the head of that larger company's revival effort.

On Thursday night, the new New York City Opera offered its first new production of the 2016 season, a double bill of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Aleko and the more familiar Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo. However, the staging (imported whole from the Carolina Opera and setting both of these dramas on a unit set) seemed to be the product of two different opera companies, despite the presence of the same chorus, conductor (James Meena, also imported from the Carolina Opera) and orchestra in each show.

Rachmaninoff wrote Aleko when he was 18, and it is the opera that won the young conservatory student the Great Gold Medal and established him as a composer to watch. It is a story of jealousy, rage and bloody revenge set in a gypsy camp, with the titular character (Stefan Szkafarowsky) losing his marbles and attacking both his wife Zemfira (Inna Dukach) and her young lover (Jason Kam). However, while this sounds like it would a perfect verismo drama, Rachmaninoff opts for a lusher, more Romantic sound with massed strings and lots of choral writing, underpinned with a suggestion of the Russian church modes that permeate his entire musical output.

Despite its flaws, Aleko is an interesting opera to tackle. It is a pity that the forces deployed could not make it work. Mr. Szkafarowsky looked old and tired in the title role, displaying a leathery baritone that faded and cracked in the course of this fairly short opera. Ms. Dukach was pallid and unmemorable as his wayward wife, and there was little emotional connection her and Mr. Kam. The only real voice of note here was Kevin Thompson as the Old Gypsy. This Aleko would improve greatly if he were upgraded to the title role, where his sonorous bass and regal stage presence would give this opera the justice it deserves.

Both operas were mounted in a train yard, with clapboard and brick houses on the wings to enable creative entrances and exits. The night atmosphere of the Romany camp was suggested by digital projections, which in a Spinal Tap moment, would wink out of existence at key moments, reminding one uncomfortably of the Rimsky opera about the Invisible City of Kitezh. Different digital backgrounds were applied for the Pagliacci that followed. The rail car set was otherwise minimally altered.

Pagliacci was in every way an improvement. This was mostly due to the orchestra and chorus' clear preparation and famliarity with Leoncavallo's opera and also to Francesco Anile, who was simply stunning in the central role of Canio. This tenor, who sang a substitute Otello at the Met last season in t-shirt and jeans, is a major voice, with a ringing, clarion top and a bold stage presence. He upped the ante every time he stepped upon the boards. His Vesti la giubba" was beyond reproach, delivered with heartbreaking power and a clear, laser-like tone that stayed on target despite being applied with considerable dynamic force. 

A good Canio can carry the rest of his troupe, and that is what Mr. Anile did with a mediocre supporting cast. His Nedda was Jessica Rose Cambio, who managed a strong duet scene with Silvio (Gustavo Feulien) but was less engaging in the pantomime that followed. Mr. Feulien had little to work with, but looked great and at least sounded awake. Mr. Kam returned in the small role of Beppe (unaccountable spelled "Peppe" in the projected titles), and did his best despite having very little to work with. In the last pages, Mr. Anile's performance was a reminder of those golden evenings at City Opera when one would find a diamond in a rough setting. But the the first half of this double bill reminded one that while this company is getting back on its feet, Mr. Capasso clearly has more work to do.

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