For a New York opera fan, the summer months can seem long and boring. Between May and October, there aren’t many places to hear great music without having to travel far. Fortunately, Caramoor, a music festival situated in Katonah, only about an hour from New York City, can be counted on to provide a well-appreciated respite from the monotony of New York’s summer opera season.
Through the “Bel Canto at Caramoor” program, conductor Will Crutchfield has brought typically neglected bel-canto works to audiences, performing two operas in a semi-staged format every summer since 1997.
This year, the first opera in the “Bel Canto at Caramoor” series was Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”. The uncomfortably incestuous opera, written in 1833, is notable for having been a vehicle for Joan Sutherland. More or less based on actual history blended with the Victor Hugo play “Lucrèce Borgia”, the opera is a complicated episode in the life(and death…?) of one of history’s most famous “femme fatales” and a pawn in the political games of the (in)famous Borgia family in Renaissance Italy.
The opera itself is unmistakably Donizetti. From the first bars of the overture, played ominously in the horns and echoed by the percussion, it’s no surprise that this is the same composer who would write “Lucia di Lammermoor” two years later.
In the title role and making her role debut, Angela Meade was warmly received back in Caramoor’s Venetian Theatre. This is her fourth performance at Caramoor, including what some have called a “star making” performance as Norma in 2009. Part of what’s so enjoyable about watching Meade as a performer, especially after having seen her perform before, is the improvement. Each performance builds on a lacking aspect of the previous one. While this type of improvement should be a given for any singer, it’s a particular pleasure to witness her continue to develop her craft.
Lucrezia Borgia is a difficult role. The singer has to have command of the difficult coloratura passage-work, while simultaneously supporting Felice Romani’s complex libretto and working to make one of those classically unfeasible Bel Canto opera plots work. For her first outing with the role, Meade did a fantastic job. Her establishment and architecture of the uninterrupted bel canto vocal line is infallible and her coloratura faculties continue to improve. In the notably impossible final aria, ‘Era desso il figlio mio’, Meade negotiated the many trills and tricks, all the while supporting the text and maintaining the vocal elegance that she had brought to the performance. Her high notes were numerous and high-flying(though she didn’t take the optional e-flat at the end of the final aria) and she sang with authority and intelligence. This is definitely the type of role she can go far in, and now opera houses finally have a diva worthy of a production of “Lucrezia”.
As Gennaro, Lucrezia’s illegitimate son, Michele Angelini delivered an interesting interpretation. The role of Gennaro is difficult and written high for the male voice, which explains why it has attracted singers like Alfredo Kraus, Giuseppe Fillianoti, and Vittorio Grigolo. Angelini isn’t a singer with a particularly distinctive voice, but as he sings higher in his range, the top notes sound clearer as opposed to strained and grating. The voice brings an elegance to each well-phrased line, which makes up for some of his histrionic acting. This is definitely a singer I would be interested in hearing in other repertoire.
As Alfonso I d’Este, the duke of Ferrara and Lucrezia’s fourth husband, bass Christophoros Stamboglis brought a deep, refined bass voice to the part of the villain. His deep low notes matched Meade in their intense duet. Unfortunately, he was pretty wooden onstage and stayed in about one position for the entire show.
Tamara Mumford has a lot going for her. She’s tall, elegant, and has a fascinating voice. The middle of her range, while having a worn-sounding timbre, is still extremely and inexplicably pleasing. In addition to that, she has a huge lower extension that sounds equally satisfying and could probably, and hopefully will, cross over into singing some alto repertoire. In the part of Maffio Orsini, her entire range and arsenal of vocal techniques was tested. Despite some mild discomfort with the coloratura, she had a beautiful, weighty vibrato and was one of the few convincing actresses of the evening. I hope she ends up singing Lola in the Met’s new “Cavalleria” next season, because she has the perfect voice for it.
In the smaller roles, SungWook Kim was a well-sung Liverotto, Will Hearn’s Vitellozzo suffered from nerves, and Zachary Altman was an authoritative Alfonso, though it’s hard to single out only a few of the very talented group of Caramoor’s “Bel Canto Young Artists”. The Caramoor Festival Chorus maintained its usual standard of excellence with importance and crystalline diction.
Will Crutchfield is a real singer’s conductor. He managed to find a balance between the singers and the orchestra and made sure that the orchestra never overpowered the vocalists, even at such close proximity. He elicited wonderful sounds from the always-wonderful Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Special props to the harp playerSara Cutler, who added the perfect touch to Lucrezia’s first aria, ‘Come e’ bello’.
There are many reasons why operas fall into neglect over the years. In many cases, the music as drama just cannot stand on its own. While “Lucrezia” is by no means a bad opera and definitely one of the more remarkable operas of the Bel Canto era, it needs some propulsion from the stage direction to drive the action along. In fact, it probably requires a big production to fully convey the piece, with all of its campiness, so it makes sense. The semi-staged production omitted a lot of action that would have been helpful to see(SPOILER ALERT! Six characters die from drinking poisoned wine, and there was no indication of that onstage) as well as including a lot of “implied deaths” and getting rid of any props.
Caramoor will present a repeat performance of “Lucrezia Borgia” on Friday, July 18th. Tickets can be purchased here or through the box office by calling 9142321252.
On Saturday, July 19th, Caramoor will present Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. Each opera at Caramoor is preceded by a full day of lectures and young-artist performances in the Spanish Courtyard starting at 3:00.
Photo: Gabe Palacio