April 25, 2018

Boheme Opera NJ Presents the “Realism” of 19th-century Opera

By Nancy Plum

One-act operas present unusual challenges to directors in how to combine them into an evening’s entertainment and the possibility of double casting. Two short operas often linked in one production are Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, creating an evening of 19th-century human drama. These two operas represent the school of verismo, in which composers portrayed the ugly realities of life, with ordinary people doing ordinary things — such as stealing each other spouses and killing one another off. Boheme Opera NJ presented Cavalleria and Pagliacci in a double bill this past weekend at The College of New Jersey’s Kendall Main Stage Theater, with a cast of nine principals who demonstrated that this regional opera company wastes no expense in seeking the highest level of talent. With a nod to its home base, Boheme Opera NJ set both of these productions in a late 1940s Italian-American community in northeastern United States, similar to what the Chambersburg section of Trenton might have been like in the years after World War II.

The title Cavelleria Rusticana loosely translates as “rustic chivalry,” but there was nothing chivalrous about these characters. The original short story by Italian realist writer Giovanni Verga was much more violent than the libretto Mascagni set, but the dark and unrefined story told no doubt woke up European Victorian audiences; Mascagni’s opera was an instant hit and almost immediately popular worldwide. Although the story is complex the cast is only five, and from the outset the principals in Friday night’s performance (the production was repeated Sunday afternoon) took control of the stage and the drama. The storyline centered on two couples — Santuzza and her beloved Turiddu, and Alfio and his wife Lola — none of whom seems to be able to stay with their intended and all of whom are stirring up trouble in the town, even on Easter Sunday.

Soprano Eudora Brown brought an extremely rich lower register and glorious top notes to the role of Santuzza, played to derive sympathy from the audience as she watched her beloved Turiddu start an affair with someone else’s wife. Tenor Peter Scott Drackley, singing the role of Turiddu, warmed up to the part as the opera progressed, well matching the three other principals in vocal power. A duet between Drackley and Brown was especially elegant, and Drackley presented well a vocal soliloquy, cleanly accompanied by a solo horn. Turiddu’s paramour Lola made her appearance dressed in red shoes and hat, contrasting with the other more subdued costumes, but clearly making a statement. As Lola, mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens showed vocal flexibility and dynamic control with the lyrical and emotional music. Baritone Michael Corvino, the only principal performer double-cast in both operas, solidly performed the role of Alfio, Lola’s husband. Corvino has an international career as a verismo singer, and in both productions was a vocal and dramatic anchor for the rest of the cast. His duet with Brown’s Santuzza was precisely with the orchestra, and he was clearly a singer of significant operatic experience.

Like Cavalleria, Leoncavallo’s 1892 I Pagliacci was scored for five principal characters and takes place on a religious holiday. Based on a criminal case Leoncavallo heard as a youth hanging around his father’s courtroom, Pagliacci’s play-within-a-play format continued the verismo thinking that actors have emotions just like everyone else. Boheme Opera NJ’s production of Pagliacci began with a stage bathed in pink, as the clown Tonio (sung by Michael Corvino in his second role of the evening) announced the arrival of touring actors who would present a play for the village. Tonio told the opera story from the composer’s point of view, as the lines between reality and theatrically gradually blur amid deceit and murder and Corvino again proved himself to be a rock-solid singer and effective storyteller.

As Canio, the head of the theatrical troupe, tenor Errin Brooks had no trouble filling Kendall Hall with both effortless singing and an animated and jovial portrayal of the character. Brooks sang Canio’s signature aria, “Vesti la giubba,” with ease in the upper register and strong command of the stage. His wife Nedda (who was secretly having an affair with Silvio) was sung by soprano Natalie Polito with versatility in shifting emotions and a voice which soared into the upper registers. Argentinian baritone Gustavo Feulien performed the character of Silvio as suave and debonair, fitting in well with his career singing some of the more villainous roles in the repertory. Feulien sang with a voice that substantially carried through the hall, and his duet with Polito was a high points of the production.

Throughout both operas, conductor Joseph Pucciatti led an orchestra which did not overpower the singers and effectively conveyed the drama of the music. An always effective musical aspect of Boheme Opera’s productions in Kendall Hall is placing harpist Elaine Christy in an alcove, allowing the harp’s elegant sound to float over the audience while accompanying poignant arias. Chorusmaster Brittany Montoro prepared a well-trained and well-blended ensemble, although it could have used a few more men. The set and lighting designers, including J. Matthew Root and Mike Voytko, created a simple and realistic stage with a backdrop that could easily have been Chambersburg in the 1940s.

Boheme Opera NJ is coming up on its 30th anniversary next season, and has planned an ambitious celebration including works of Bernstein and Verdi’s colossal Aida. This past weekend’s performance showed that the company continues to both draw top-notch singers and provide performing opportunities for local up-and-comers.