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Dogeball: “I Due Foscari” at Teatro Alla Scala

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Francesco Meli, Luca Salsi, Anna Pirozzi, and Chiara Isotton

It is far from unheard of for a specific singer to champion a forgotten piece and bring it back into the performance circuit. Maria Callas, for example, brought Anna Bolena into the 20th century. In recent times, Joyce DiDonato has given particular prominence to Rossini’s La Donna Del Lago and Placido Domingo, the raison d’être for a well-executed and stirring revival recently seen at Milan’s Teatro Alla Scala, has resurrected Giuseppe Verdi’s musically-and-dramatically fulfilling I Due Foscari from semi-obscurity to reveal an exciting opera with ample potential for singers and stagings. Continue Reading »

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The Sound and the Furies: Handel’s “Orlando” at Carnegie Hall

Between the limits of historically-informed performance, period instrumentation, and the viability of an intimate chamber opera in a house the size of the Met or La Scala, there exists a stigma against Baroque opera that it cannot hold dramatic weight. On one hand, one could argue that the stories are too esoteric and the music and words seldom come together to form a sublime or affecting musico-dramatic moment, and to some degree that is correct. But on the other hand, though, is The English Concert’s thrilling performance of George Frideric Handel’s Orlando at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday. Intelligent, confident music making at Sunday’s performance made a sterling case for Baroque opera as a genuinely exciting, engrossing form of theater. Continue Reading »

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Magic Virtues: “Don Pasquale” at the Metropolitan Opera

There’s a lot of Gaetano Donizetti being seen at the Metropolitan Opera this season. There’s the Tudor Queen cycle (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, all starring Sondra Radvanovsky), the sappy L’Elisir D’Amore, and, most likely to be overlooked because of its mere 5 performances, Don Pasquale, which opened at the Met on Friday.

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Maestri and Buratto in Don Pasquale

Donizetti’s delightful 1843 opera buffa, originally written to showcase Luigi Lablache, Antonio Tamburini, Giovanni Mario, and Giulia Grisi, considered the finest singers of their day, is an endearing, old-fashioned “morality” tale in which an aging bachelor, Don Pasquale, is taught a harsh lesson about marriage when he decides to take a much younger wife that is, consequently, his nephew’s true love. After an evening of scheming and trickery, the whole affair ends in a cheerful quartet.

Only seeing its third outing in ten years, Otto Schenk‘s production is, like Don Pasquale himself, frustratingly mindless. Though Rolf Langenfass’ sets and costumes are impressive and really do bring sun-drenched Rome to the stage of the Met, Schenk’s park-n-bark (or, alternatively, park-n-throw-plants) production provides no insights about an opera that delivers a complex message and is more layered than the screwball comedy it is wont to be taken for.

Ambrogio Maestri, a baritone singing the titular bass part, was forced to rely on his talents as a comic actor when the low-lying tessitura of the title role shrunk his sound. While Maestri’s big, comic presence would seem a perfect fit for the part and his concise, sonorous voice is ideal for most of the parts he sings, his Don Pasquale was uncharacteristically lacking in vocal charisma and he struggled to strike a balance with conductor Maurizio Benini, whose efficient tempi and dramatic reading of the score made Donizetti’s ebullient opera sound near-Wagnerian at points.

As Dottore Malatesta, Pasquale’s physician that sets the whole ruse in motion, Levente Molnár boasts a resonant baritone with a pleasing snarl, but seemed, similarly to Maestri, somewhat out of his element with the part.

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Buratto and Camarena in Don Pasquale

Of all the artists I’ve seen at the Met, tenor Javier Camarena, as Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, has always gotten the most applause. Whether it’s his endearing stage presence, clean, honeyed high-tenor, stellar high notes that ring throughout the house but are produced with just enough effort so that you know that he is really involved in what he is singing, or a combination of the three, Camarena is a superb singer and an indispensable asset to the production. Most impressive was his sensitively-phrased “Com’è gentil,” sung from offstage. And while the Met has cultivated him well over the years (He has sung Almaviva in Barbiere, Ramiro in Cenerentola, Elvino in La Sonnambula at the house, and will sing Arturo in I Puritani next season), Camarena is ready and deserving of even more high-profile assignments. If a new Semiramide production is rumored to be coming down the pike at the Met, then maybe Camarena as Idreno? One can hope…

The most unexpectedly excellent performance came from Met debutante Eleonora Buratto as Norina, the young widow with whom Ernesto is in love. With supreme, exacting control, Buratto wields an ample voice that is dark in the lower register, beautiful and plush in the middle, and with shimmering metallic high notes at the top that filled the house with ease. She was up to all of the production’s physical comedy (including an impressively-executed somersault onto a deck chair) and, obviously deeply invested in the material and her performance, threw herself into the part. Her “Quel Guardo il Cavaliere… So Anch’io la Virtù Magica” really told a story and her voice blended exquisitely with Camarena in their final “Tornami a dir” duet. The world may have finally found its next Italian soprano.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus did their usually-impressive job with special props going to trumpet player whose solo at the beginning of Act III would have brought a tear to Ennio Morricone’s eye.

There are still four more chances to catch Don Pasquale this season at the Met, and you’d be well-advised to see Camarena and Buratto in action. Tickets are available here.

Don Pasquale

Camarena, Buratto, and Maestri in Don Pasquale

All photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

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The Producer: A Conversation with Broadway’s David Stone

David Stone keeps busy. Between his work as a producer – among his Broadway credits are Wicked, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Next to Normal, and If/Then – and his career as a lecturer – he has lectured at Juilliard, Yale University, and Columbia University, among other places -, Mr. Stone has used his extensive experience in the industry to foster engaging theatrical experiences on an international level. I recently sat down with him to discuss how he came to producing, his opinions on bootleg recordings, and the phenomenon of cross-pollination between the worlds of opera and Broadway. Read our conversation below:

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David Stone and Idina Menzel

So, how did you come to producing?
As a kid, I went to the French Woods camp where I had the chance to perform and direct. I later ended up going into communications, like TV, film, and advertisements. From there, I was pulled into theatre. I got an internship at Jujamcyn Theaters, where I was introduced to people like Barry and Fran Weissler. I started producing when I was 26, and it just worked out.

What makes for good theatre vs. what makes a hit? Where do the two intersect?
Good theatre is subjective. What makes good theatre for someone might not make good theatre for someone else. But you can’t be cynical about it. In Broadway, there’s always cynicism about what will make money when it comes to jukebox musicals, for example. Good theatre comes as a result of the passion of the people who put a show together. It has nothing to do with whether or not it is a hit. And good shows aren’t always successful and vice-versa, and even good shows might not work at some degree. For example, Next to Normal, which I produced, was a rock opera and it was very good. It was a success, yes, but it wasn’t a huge hit. The two aren’t necessarily connected, and you can’t set out to do both. When both happen – good theatre that becomes a hit – it’s not intentional.

What is your favorite part of putting a show onstage?
I love the process. What I don’t love are opening nights and being there with the audience. I love is the development of a show, the previews, during which we listen to the audience to help us fix a show, and tech. Once a show is done, it becomes a job, and that’s not the part I’m crazy about.

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David Stone at the Launch of Wicked’s “Friendship Garden” in 2007

What is your opinion on the bootleg recording debate?
I hate it, but I think it’s a good marketing tool because audience members know that if they’re only seeing something on YouTube, it makes them more excited about the material. A bootleg recording might whet your appetite for a show, and audiences are smart enough to realize that a bootleg recording is just an approximation of what is happening onstage.

What is your personal taste in theatre?
I love Sondheim. I tend to be interested in plays and musicals that reflect how I see the world. Shows with human beings with human problems. For that reason, musical comedy usually doesn’t do it for me. And so much of Broadway is just presentational. That’s not my style.

What is the best show you’ve ever seen?
Gosh, I don’t know. For musicals, definitely the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd. I think West Side Story is the greatest musical ever written, though I wasn’t around for the original production of that! For plays, I think Angels in America. I know it’s cliché, but it was like nothing nobody had ever seen at the time.

In which direction, do you think, is Broadway headed?
Broadway is in the midst of another Golden Age. In the last 15 years, we’ve had at least 2-3 enduring shows every year, many of which work commercially. And there are so many people who want to do theatre. I credit RENT with opening people up to theatre. And Disney has trained new audiences. I think Broadway is healthy. Ticket prices are definitely too high, even though dynamic pricing works, but overall, now is a good time.

What would you say to somebody going into your field?
Don’t rush. Though it worked out for me, I was probably too young. Make sure to learn business, apprentice with somebody in the business, and watch how shows are put together. Remember that commercial off-Broadway exists, too. I was lucky enough to initially do small-scale shows. And to anybody going into the arts: Only do it if you think “If I don’t do this, I’ll die.”

Any final thoughts?
There’s actually quite a bit of cross-pollination between opera and theatre. Many theatre people actually write and direct opera. Jonathan Kent, whom opera fans should know, actually did Man of La Mancha with me. Joe Mantello, who directed Wicked, has done Dead Man Walking. Stephen Schwartz even had a good experience in opera. He did Seance on a Wet Afternoon at New York city Opera. Cross-pollination is more common than you’d think.

Photos: Bruce Glikas, Jason A. Specland

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Spread Your Wings and Fly: Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera

Whether or not it was because of Giacomo Puccini’s tuneful and heart-wrenching score, New York Fashion Week, or the first outing of soprano Ana Maria Martínez, a singer curiously absent from the Met, in a prima donna role, the Metropolitan Opera was jam-packed for the premiere of Madama Butterfly on Friday, February 19th.

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Zifchak and Martinez

Most opera fans are familiar with Puccini’s drama about a Japanese geisha who is disappointed and humiliated when Pinkerton, the U.S. Naval officer she married and believed to be faithful, returns from a three-year absence with a new wife to retrieve the child Pinkerton and Butterfly had together. Stripped of her honor, Butterfly then kills herself with a ceremonial dagger. Replete with “Asian” motifs and intense demands from the singers and orchestra, Butterfly is especially difficult to execute for such a core work of the standard repertoire. This run of performances at the Met (13 in total) was originally supposed to feature Patricia Racette and Kristine Opolais as Butterfly, but because of a series of repertoire changes and illnesses, Racette’s performances bounced from her to Hei Kyung Hong (who steps into the kimono starting February 27th) to Ana Maria Martínez for only two performances.

Martínez possesses an ample, amber-colored voice with a resonant, grainy middle, and she uses it with intelligence and security. However, her high notes have the tendency to fade away, and on Friday, she just couldn’t get to the musical climaxes, the high notes, at the heart of all of Butterfly’s arias, even despite smart and sensitive phrasing choices throughout. It’s not that the high notes aren’t there, but that there is little force behind the upper register compared to the thrust in the rest of the voice. Other high notes, though, defied this tendency and were spun into dazzling pianissimi. Martínez’s Butterfly was refreshingly reserved at the beginning of the opera, and slowly descended into desperation throughout. She wasn’t naïve, but an inevitable victim of a society that objectifies women. And by the end, when Butterfly is faced with dishonor and suicide is the only option, it still feels like a conscious choice. Martínez is light on her feet and hard to take your eyes off of. She played well with the other singers and was able to easily and gracefully negotiate the raked stage in the gorgeous but obviously-cumbersome kimono she wears for much of the opera. Butterfly, though well-executed by her in almost every category, just might not be the perfect fit for her voice.

As Pinkerton, Roberto De Biasio hammed it up as a playful playboy and was more or less unmemorable. The voice is slender and a size or two too small for the Met, and he struggled to distinguish himself in any of the ensembles. Both his arias were muscled through, and though not for lack of trying, he seemed mismatched with Martínez’s much more assured Butterfly.

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Martinez and Rucinski

Artur Rucinski, a baritone with a serviceable voice who made his Met debut on Friday, gave a performance that suffered from both a lack of line and garbled diction as Sharpless, the American Consul. Maria Zifchak, a stalwart Suzuki, may be showing signs of a wobble, but she is still one of the few Met artists that consistently delivers with a gleaming voice and warm stage presence.

Karel Mark Chicon, also in his Met debut, conducted with uniformly brisk tempi, and though he was able to emphasize the drama in Puccini’s inherently dramatic score, the singers and chorus seemed frequently stranded and searching as the opera relentlessly surged on.

Anthony Minghella’s production, now ten years old, is still an intelligent staging that gives the music every opportunity to shine. It’s also singer-friendly – there is room for singers to put their mark on the characters. Michael Levine’s sets are spare and evocative, Han Feng’s costumes are detailed and striking, and Peter Mumford’s lighting is just phenomenal. Blind Summit Theatre provides the puppets, one of which stands in for Butterfly’s son, Trouble. After ten years, audiences seem to be finally acclimated to this initially arresting but ultimately effective innovation.

Madama Butterfly

Martinez and De Biasio

Martínez performs the title role one more time on Monday, and then Hei Kyung Hong, singing Butterfly for the first time in her long career, takes over the part until March 5th. Kristine Opolais steps in for the remaining performances and the run ends April 12th. Other singers to join the cast are Gwyn Hughes Jones and Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless. Tickets available here.

Photos by Marty Sohl

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War of the Roses: Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera

The triptych of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor Queens is a famously challenging cycle for any diva. Most notably sung by Beverly Sills at New York City Opera, the three queens at the centerpieces of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn), Maria Stuarda (Queen Elizabeth OR Mary Stuart, depending on what angle you come from), and Roberto Devereux (Elizabeth, again) are notorious for their vocal and dramatic demands. Earlier in the season, Sondra Randvanovsky tackled Anna Bolena, a role as notable for its length as its need for a wide tessitura and rolodex of vocal techniques. While opinions of Radvanovsky’s performance were mixed, I found that the plusses (dramatic conviction, stellar high notes, thrilling vocal climaxes like only she can do these days, and a no-holds-barred vocal approach to the role) far outweighed the minuses (a lack of thrust in her lower register and some weakness in her agility singing). On Friday, Radvanovsky made another step towards completing the cycle as Maria Stuarda, the deposed Scottish queen at odds with her cousin Queen Elizabeth. Stuarda is somewhat of a different beast than Bolena (Stuarda lacks the need for a lower extension that Bolena has and is a seemingly shorter sing, though Stuarda also requires moments of virtuosity independent from the more consistently-taught drama in Bolena), but Radvanovsky latched onto the part with her brand of secure singing and triumphed once again.

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Celso Albelo, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Elza Van den Heever in Maria Stuarda

The opera comes from the Friedrich Schiller play of the same name. While Schiller’s adaptation draws from history, the centerpiece of the play-cum-opera is a heated confrontation between the two monarchs that actually never happened in history. The result, though, is a thrilling musical and dramatic moment that enlivens an opera that is often frustratingly formulaic and indecisive in scope. This is somewhat alleviated by David McVicar’s minimalistic, stylish production (which he also oversaw this revival of). McVicar hones in on each character beyond the characterizations of Giuseppe Bardari’s libretto, and what emerges is a clear depiction of two strong women: Mary, who is confident in her Catholic convictions and direct in her interactions with others, and Elizabeth, who has been crippled by her inability to form connections with her subjects and lurches about the stage like she has a nasty chafe. The opera itself looks sympathetically at Maria, but McVicar reminds the viewer that these women are flawed, and it’s OK not not warm to either of them.

In the title role, Radvanovsky was pushed to incorporate all of her vocal tricks into a shorter evening of singing. Pianissimi were often and well spun, high notes (the optional high note Radvanovsky took when Maria brands Elisabetta an “obscene and unworthy whore” was particularly thrilling) rang out, and, with the exception of a lacking trill at the end of “O Nube” and some lagging in agility as she negotiated the ensemble following the Confrontation, the vocal climaxes she built to were electrifying. The show revolved around Radvanovsky and her warm stage presence made her final climb up the executioner’s scaffold an unexpectedly poignant moment, despite the churning, relentless orchestral accompaniment playing the theme from Maria’s cabaletta, “Nella Pace del Mesto Riposo,” that was lead with balance and style by Maestro Riccardo Frizza.

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Elza van Den Heever returned to the role of Elisabetta after singing the part opposite Joyce DiDonato’s poetic Maria when the production premiered in 2013 (And if, like me, most of your experience with the opera comes from hearing DiDonato, a mezzo, do the part, then hearing the same music sung by a soprano is a very different experience.). Her voice may be more grainy that beautiful, but it has dramatic heft and she sang with security throughout the evening. And though the sound can be grating after a while and the voice just cannot muster up the charisma to meet Radvanovsky in the numerous vocal climaxes that make this opera satisfying, the two Queen’s voices blended perfectly. Neither sound is particularly beautiful, but they voices complemented each other in that there were moments where they sounded similar. The conflict at the heart of Maria Stuarda is that Maria and Elisabetta are cousins and there is a huge discrepancy in power between them. All of a sudden, the members of this family were singing the same tune.

This opera is all about the ladies, and the men in it need no more than to be good ensemble singers or duet partners, which they all were. Celso Albelo, in his Met debut as Leicester, possesses a sweet and idiomatic voice, but no singer is served well next to two powerhouse divas hurling insults at each other. Patrick Carfizzi was in good voice, his rich bass-baritone amply filling William Cecil’s lines. Kwangchul Youn as Talbot brought sensitive singing to the Confession duet with Maria, accompanying her with diligence and fluidity. In the small role of Anna Kennedy, one of Maria’s servants, Maria Zifchak exuded her usual warm stage presence but wielded an increasingly thinning voice.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus were in their usual top form. The “Preghiera” in the third act, where Radvanovsky’s voice rose above the chorus and bloomed into the house, was one of the most cohesive and moving moments of music-making I have witnessed at the Met. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is evocative, spanning from the levity of the initial festivities at Whitehall to the grim scaffold that Maria ultimately mounts. John Macfarlane’s consumes are dark and nondescript, but his sets do everything to complement Donizetti’s sometimes-evocative music and set the mood (which is, usually, super gloomy).

Heads roll at the Met through February 20th, and Radvanovsky dons the ruff in Roberto Devereux starting on March 24th. With the precedent set by her performances in the previous two operas, it should be a jolly good time.

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Photos by Ken Howard

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To Rome With Love: Tosca at New York City Opera Renaissance

One can only hope that New York City Opera Renaissance, headed by impresario Michael Capasso, will go the direction of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in that it gains vitality and innovation as the years go on, because, despite the initial curiosity of recreating the same production that was seen at the opera’s premiere in 1900, the Tosca that arrived at the Rose Theater this week seemed an odd successor to a company that prided itself on artistic innovation on every level.

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Photo by Sarah Shatz

Tosca was a symbolic choice more than anything. It was the first opera that the original NYCO performed. In this incarnation, though, NYCO Renaissance obtained the rights to all of Adolfo Hohenstein’s set and costume designs from the the publisher Ricordi and painstakingly recreated the production that was, more or less, seen when the curtain first went up on Tosca at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1900. The painted drops are impressive. Hohenstein’s watercolor designs are well-lit (by Susan Roth) and thoroughly drawn to create an effect that is both pleasing to the eye and effective in creating a false perspective. Lev Pugliese’s direction of the singers was efficient and predictably traditional, if not overdrawn at times (Cavaradossi drew a knife when Angelotti emerged from the chapel in Act I). Though the drops flapped and fluttered every time somebody brushed past them too quickly and sometimes one could almost smell the mothballs bogging down this vintage take on a uniquely layered opera, it was an interesting concept for a production. But I cannot believe that this is the message that New York City Opera Renaissance wants to send. A production like this, though valuable for its historical quaintness, seems just plain regressive to a medium that is constantly making leaps and bounds forward and to a company that will succeed because of the goodwill of the risk-taking patrons of the original New York City Opera. Let’s just say that the Winter Show at the Armory wasn’t the only antique show that arrived in New York City last week, though I would bet that the crowd at each event was the same.

NYCO Renaissance presented two alternating trios of singers in the lead roles. The opening night cast was headed by Kristin Sampson as the diva Tosca. While not particularly distinctive, her voice, with its wide middle, pinched top, and a nice but underutilized chest voice, worked for the part. Her performance improved as the opera progressed, despite an unadorned “Vissi d’Arte,” and a rather timid characterization that made it hard to draw a connection between a Tosca who commands the stage as a singer and commands a relationship as a significant other. The quote “well-behaved women rarely make history” came to mind as this Tosca gingerly moved through the act of and stage business following Scarpia’s murder.

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Latonia Moore and Carlo Guelfi – Photo by Sarah Shatz

The second Tosca was the radiant Latonia Moore. Her voice is big, beautiful, and evenly produced from top to bottom with a strong and consistent vocal line, and she commanded the stage from the moment she stepped on the scene. This was a Tosca that was in control, as serious about her craft as she was about her romances. It was wrenching to watch her as she became increasingly more frantic during her lover’s torture in Act II, desperate to stay in control in some way. Moore has a palpably deep feeling for Puccini’s music, too. She made each one of Tosca’s anguished Act II high notes a sob, a sigh, or a scream. Whereas some singers just wail, Moore allowed each one of Puccini’s high notes to reveal something about the character. I can’t help but think that Puccini, a man of the theatre himself, would have been impressed.

The first cast’s Cavaradossi was James Valenti, whose old-school, self-indulgent stage movements (outstretched hands, lines delivered to the house as opposed to other characters, etc.) jived with the overall “theme” of the production. His Italianate, resonant voice consistently filled the theater (though his voice was far more interesting and expressive when he played with dynamics) and every high note was nailed (and held for a really long time). Valenti’s is a dominating presence onstage, so genuine chemistry between he and his prima donna was hard to come by. Each aria, though, ended stronger than or as strong as it started.

The other Cavaradossi, Raffaele Abete, was quite Valenti’s opposite. His voice is more slender and exacting than Valenti’s robust one, but it rose to nearly every climax. While he seemed musically tentative during parts on the first act and the second act saw him run out of steam a bit, he was in good shape for the tenor arias that bookend the opera. Abete and Moore had much better chemistry than the previous pairing.

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James Valenti and Kristin Sampson in Tosca – Photo by Sarah Shatz

Michael Chioldi stole the show as the Scarpia of the first cast. His voice, a rich and resonant baritone, stood out amongst his co-stars as he dispatched the text with precision and ease. Also, his Scarpia, more of a glutton for pain and pleasure as opposed to the usual straight-up lecher, was a welcome respite from the slimy, distant Scarpia of Luc Bondy’s production that played in revival earlier this season several blocks down at the Met.

The second Scarpia was veteran baritone Carlo Guelfi. Guelfi’s voice has deteriorated over the years to the point where it has become an acidic, legato-less snarl, punctuated by an occasional declamative booming. He moved onstage with purpose, though, and his obvious experience onstage made him a welcome commodity in a production whose concept is so vintage that it was practically foreign to the rest of the singers.

The smaller roles were filled-in competently. Christopher Job was a lustrous-voiced Angelotti and Blagoj Nacoski’s Spoletta was well-sung and had all the necessary sliminess one expects from this pivotal minor character. Kevin Thompson’s booming-yet-sensitive bass was a standout as the jailer. Donald Hartmann brought a worn voice to the over-directed, relentless comic routine of the Sacristan. In her solo as the Shepherd Boy, Daria Hrabova Capasso gave an admirable performance.

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Photo by Richard Termine

Pacien Mazzagattis conducting lacked subtlety, but drew interesting textures and fiery playing from the New York City Opera Orchestra (Yes, the original NYCO Orchestra). Musica Sacra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus were both distinguished contributors to the first act.

New York City Opera Renaissance has a difficult act to follow and a new generation of donors to win over. I personally hope that it is high-quality music-making and boundary-pushing theatrics that bring audiences to NYCOR in the future. But whether or not this new generation of fans and donors will be wooed by a Puccini warhorse staged in a watercolor music box is probably a question better left both unasked and unanswered.

Hohenstein Tosca

Original Set Design for Act II of Tosca by Adolfo Hohenstein

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