Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

KY opera opening night: Turiddu and Nedda Habemus!

Last night I attended Kentucky Opera’s opening night performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci presented at the Brown Theater in KY.  I must say that they have had an unqualified success with this perennial double bill.  Let the blood bath start.

The casting management at KY opera must be feeling pretty good about themselves. They have assembled a cast for both operas where there were few to no weak links, the conducting was solid and the orchestra playing was exceptionally good. From the opening notes of the Cavalleria prelude it was clear that Maestro Richard Buckley had a fantastic ensemble at his hands. The orchestra played with a beautiful and luscious sound, but never covered the singers. Tempos were generally solid and the action was moved forward with dramatic impulse and drive, yet it never felt like (as it has become the norm) “Let’s get this show finished before midnight so we do not have to pay over time.” A big bravo to all the members of the orchestra and also the chorus. The playing and the singing were exquisite, especially considering how the chorus was not a mass of people. Bravi.

Both operas were performed in a basic unit set (not uncommon given how both basically take place in a town square) with some alterations between them (the church from Cavalleria was gone to open up the piazza for the Pagliacci). I am sure this was a money saving device yet it didn’t feel and look like one. The same could be said for the costumes. The action was moved forward to what seemed like a period between the 20’s and 30’s, judging by the hair and the fashions. This allowed the chorus to not have to change costumes, but maybe add or remove a hat or an accessory. This was a very well played move by the designers. It gave continuity to the action and saved money at the same time.

Director Kristine McIntyre kept the hostilities basic. There were no big directorial gimmicks (thank God) and the action was blocked sensibly and with simplicity. That being said, I felt the Pagliacci was more successful than the Cavalleria. While the acting all around was pretty decent, I felt there were some misfires in the Cavalleria that robbed it from some of the impact that it can had. For example, in the very beginning, we see Lola come to the balcony to hear Turiddu’s serenade. Eventually, we saw at least 3 other females that were not Lola appear in the same balcony and we saw Alfio refer to his house as if it was somewhere in the distance. I just kept thinking, is that their house, a motel, or is Turiddu bringing Lola to spend the night? (You guessed it; Mamma Lucia’s tavern was downstairs). I am not sure if this was born out of necessity, given how small the Brown theater stage is, but once that balcony was tagged as the little slut’s balcony, it was hard to take how many other women had access to the house.

As I said, the Pagliacci was a little more successful in that aspect. The blocking was kept pretty basic, and you know?, basic is good. The characters were able (for the most part) to relate to each other and to SING to each other. That is the beauty of a small stage, it might be a little crammed, but damn it, you can sing to your partner and still be able to be heard. We had a lot of that today and I loved it.

The singing was also at a very high level today.  Kara Shay Thompson, a soprano Santuzza who has also sung Tosca in regional opera houses sang the shit out of the role. Her voice was secure and it rang with power through most of the register. If her lower notes were a little careful, I truly didn’t care, there is no need for an Erda/Ulrica type of Santuzza. She seemed never to tire; vocally this Santuzza was rock solid to the end, with a ringing high C held for ever. I will say that her characterization left me a little cold. For some reason I was not able to connect emotionally to her character the way I was able to connect with the singing. I was not sure whether this Santuzza was just passive or passive aggressive.  There were times that I just wanted her to grab Turiddu by the hair and slap the little bastard across the face and teach him that she was not going to put up with that shit. I did not get the overbearing Italian girlfriend out of her, but I didn’t get the all-suffering-Jewish-mama-in-the-making either. That being said, who gives a fuck? Her singing was primal and she more tan deserves the ovation she got.

Her Santuzza was pitted against the charms of Mezzo soprano Brandy Hawkins, a studio artist at KY opera. Ms. Hawkins is an artist to watch, you just HAD to pay attention to her from her very entrance. She is a beautiful woman with voice and curves to match. This Lola was a bombshell who was not about to be bullied by Santuzza. Count me very impressed by this young lady. Let’s hope she is not swallowed up by this business and we never hear from her again, this kind of singing needs to be put on stage as often as possible. Casting managers, you have been warned.

My dear friend Rebekah Bortz Hardin, whom I have not seen in 13 years, was a very good Mamma Lucia. Caring when she needed to be, firm when she needed to be and a little scornful at one moment or another. Her singing was just beautiful as well. Not that she is going to get it because she is my friend, but KY opera is lucky to have her. Brava Rebeckah!

The reason for me to take this trip was to see my Texan twin brother Michael Wade Lee. So take what I say with a grain of salt, ‘cause I know that when you review a performance of someone who you consider family, no matter what the DNA says, you are going to come across as biased. Mike has been singing some heavier rep lately, after doing some truly amazing Mozart in school. You know? it works for me. After completely reworking his technique in NYC, his singing still has that youthful ardor that made him such a fabulous Idamante nearly 15 years ago and now he has easier high notes. Not that he is my brother, but his singing tonight had both the power and the youth that made him a near perfect Turiddu. His serenade was appropriately lyrical; his treatment of Santuzza had the virility you expect but none of the barking that usually accompanies this kind of role. His final aria was beautifully vocalized (even when I kept thinking how different I would have staged that moment). All in all, I will have to say that Mike has proved that I was wrong when my eyebrows went to the ceiling when he told me he was taking on Don Jose, Turiddu and other heavier roles. Bravo bro, I am immensely proud of you.

I have purposely left Lester Lynch’s Alfio for the end because I am going to use him and a bridge for my talking on Pagliacci, given how he sang both Alfio and Tonio. His singing as Alfio was a little tentative at first, but as the evening grew, so did his singing and his stature. His Tonio turned out to be a grotesque creature both in body and soul, who sang with power and commanded attention. This was a tour de force and he deserves great kudos for his handling of both roles. Of all the principal artists, he had the longest night, and he never seemed tired. Bravo.
Michael Myes as Silvio also showed why he is considered a young artist to watch. His singing reminded me a little of Sherrill Milnes at times. He cut a dashing figure on stage and I could see why Nedda wanted to run out with him and send everything to hell. He made a meal out of the small role of Silvio and I have to give kudos to KY opera for hiring him. Let’s hope we will hear a lot more from this singer.

Talking about Nedda, I have to say that tonight; the Pagliacci performance belonged to Elizabeth Caballero and her Nedda. This had to be one of the most scrupulously vocalized performances I have heard this year. I know, I know, I am about to fall over myself writing superlatives about this singer and you know? nothing I write will accurately portray just how fabulous this woman was tonight. People, if you see Elizabeth Caballero’s name in your local company’s cast, don’t be an idiot and run to the box office and get yourself a ticket. I guarantee you that one day, when this woman is singing at a level that your opera company will not be able to afford her any longer, you will be thankful you took my advice. The singing I heard tonight was at a level that, to give you a comparison, I would have to pull the names of Popp and Lorengar, that is not something to be ignored. Her voice was evenly produced, the high notes were brilliant, that Striddono lassu was perfection; perfection I tell you. The best part is that her singing never felt mechanical. You know how some young singers look like they are more concerned with technique than with giving you a theatrical experience? Well, that was NOT what we got today.

John Mac Mester gave us a Canio that was all rage and all power. I never doubted that he would not get through the role. He had all the high notes and the voice to match the rage of this character. That being said, I will be respectful to this beloved artists of the KY audience and say I appreciated his effort. The audience certainly did and he was greeted like a conquering hero. I wish I felt as strong about his singing.

The cast was rounded up with Daniel Anderson, another member of the KY Opera Studio Artists. Mr. Anderson proved to be a charming presence on stage as Beppe, and one who is equally comfortable singing high Bb’s (and very well I might add) and doing cartweels and juggling.

All in all, KY opera has a winner in their hands. There will be one more performance on Sunday the 26th at 2 PM. If you happen to be in the area I strongly recommend that you get yourself a ticket. You’ll be happy you did.


September 25, 2010 Posted by | Opera Review | 4 Comments