New Jersey Opera Theater Presents Preview of Summer Operatic Quality
Summer opera came early this year in Princeton. Out of the ashes of the Opera Festival of New Jersey, two organizations are promising the return of regional opera to this area this summer. The Princeton Festival, which will be presenting Sweeney Todd in July; and New Jersey Opera Theater (NJOT), which will open its season in August. NJOT provided a preview of its operatic vision on Friday night in Richardson Auditorium with a concert production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. NJOT's previous productions had been with student artists, and this was the company's first foray into professional production. With an opera full of famed melodies, lush orchestration, and hummable choruses, NJOT had an opportunity to provide an in-depth operatic experience. Although some in the audience came to the show expecting a fully-staged production, all seemed to leave satisfied with having heard some excellent singing.
Presenting the opera in concert version created the impression of a recital of operatic arias and ensemble numbers, with longer than usual breaks to allow singers on and off stage. The first few numbers introduced all the singers and their characters to the audience and set the tone for the evening's performance quality. The stand-out performers of the concert were soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, singing the role of Leonora; and mezzo Eugenie Grunewald, who performed the role of Azucena. Although her voice may have been a bit too forward for some tastes, Ms. Blancke-Biggs was a true Verdi soprano, smoothly maneuvering the runs with rich clarity and impeccable timing. She had the role of the Verdi heroine down, floating high Bs and Cs out of nowhere with ease. Ms. Grunewald assumed a "don't mess with me" posture from the minute she walked onstage obviously seething about something. Her singing was equally as determined, and she lived up to her description in the program as a performer "who can reach off the stage and grab the listener by the throat."
The male singers of the cast also exhibited a vast amount of experience on the operatic stage. Bass Stefan Szkafarowsky settled down by the second act in his portrayal of Ferrando, setting the plot of the opera with his opening narration. The interplay between Mr. Szkafarowsky and the chorus of soldiers in the beginning of Act III was precise in a musical patter reminiscent of Rossini. As Il Conte di Luna, Peter Castaldi was sufficiently swarthy, and although he did not have the natural volume of Mr. Szkafarowsky, his vocal tone was very even.
Verdi operas include significant choral writing, and the chorus for this production was clean and precise, but not overly loud. The famed "Anvil" chorus could have used a bit more "oomph," but the singing in all of the choruses was evenly blended for the most part. Little attempt was made to reign in vibrato (affecting the women more than the men), and fatigue may have accounted for the blastiness of the tenor section in the well-known "Miserere."
The orchestra compiled for this production was a bit large for the space and location of the artists; much emphasis had obviously been placed in having a lush string sound. Conductor Michael Recchiuti kept the tempo moving right along, and there were a number of notable wind and brass solos, including clarinetists Josh Kovach and Rie Suzuki, bassoonists Darryl Harthshorne and Jacob Smith, and trumpeter Robert Skoniczin.
NJOT is trying to raise the level of its performance from student to young professional. Friday night's performance was a good first effort, even though it would have been more visually effective to have all the principals memorize their music, rather than walk around with books curled under their arms in some cases. This summer, the company will open its season in mid-August in McCarter Theatre, a risky undertaking for a first season. NJOT will surely refine what was presented Friday night to provide an intriguing addition to Princeton's summer entertainment.