"Carmen" is in the house. And thanks to the Bel Cantanti Opera, the gypsy woman is still crimson and kind of cool. Sure, she loves 'em and leaves 'em, and has a penchant for slicing and dicing any broad who gets in her way. But when she starts singing, all is forgotten — or at least forgiven.
The small but mighty opera company will perform "Carmen" this weekend at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville. "I wanted to do "Carmen" for quite a long time, but French opera is usually very big. I couldn't afford to have 80 people on stage," explains Katerina Souvorova, Bel Cantanti's director. She considered Peter Brook's abridged version, but didn't want to eliminate the chorus, which would reduce "Carmen" to a mere four characters. Deciding to create her own adaptation was the only way to go for this Belarus native who now lives in Germantown. For passionate opera lovers, Souvorova notes that most of "Carmen's" choruses remain and the opera still weighs in at a hefty 145 minutes. That's OK since time seems to rush by watching the lusty lady and her lover Don José's soap opera romance. In this version, the opera is sung in French with English super titles; the dialogue is in English. And while Bel Cantanti works on the barest of budgets, the opera is a fully staged costumed production with a 13-piece orchestra.
While Souvorova always hoped to do "Carmen," finding her devil in the red dress was a struggle. It was a role mezzo soprano Myeongsook Park wanted desperately. She recalls leaving her two young daughters "for the first time" and driving five hours [to Washington, D.C.] from her home in Queens, N.Y., for her "three-minute" audition. Why? "Because it was ‘Carmen.' I had to come," explains the South Korean native, who holds a doctorate in musical arts from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After sitting through too many auditions, Souvorova remembers the moment Park entered the room. "She was beautiful. With [the character of] Carmen, there cannot be any negotiating. She has to be sexy and she has to be able to sing. When we saw her, she was a ‘strike.'"
Souvorova was equally impressed with spinto tenor Hansu Kim (Don José). "The part is so vocally demanding, I had to find someone who could handle it. During auditions, many singers' voices broke at the most demanding parts," she recalls. But Kim was different. He had a "self-centered and contained presence about him, which was an important component to the character. He is also extremely musical," Souvorova says. "He sings with such emotion [that] when you close your eyes, you feel all the happiness and the pain. And it's not just his voice, which is gorgeous, but he offers such an emotional connection that when he and Park sing to each other, it is like [they are] making love." Kim grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and studied at the University of Indiana before moving to New Jersey. He had already sung the part of José a number of times, but wanted to work with Bel Cantanti because it is "part of Washington, D.C." In addition to this production, the singer will make his Kennedy Center debut next month when he performs at the Cherry Blossom Festival.
While Kim's powerful voice made Don José a perfect fit, Park worried that the character of Carmen was against her "nature. Growing up in South Korea, we are taught to be obedient and to serve," she says with a sly laugh. Once she became immersed in the character, however, she recalls feeling "Carmen's freedom and sense of liberty. It was kind of nice being feisty, strong and beautiful."
Souvorova has some very practical reasons for choosing "Carmen." "With opera companies closing all the time," she wanted to do "Carmen" because it is "familiar and people love it." Even individuals who have never been to an opera will be familiar with "Habanera" and "Escamillo," often used in movies and even commercials. And while Carmen's story may seem tame by 21st century standards, "Carmen" was scandalous when it premiered at a family-friendly theater in Paris in 1875. Opera-goers were accustomed to hearing the stories of mythical figures or royalty, "not real people, including smugglers, prostitutes and the poor," Souvorova points out. While Bizet never saw his opera became a hit — he died just before it was performed in Austria to critical acclaim — "Carmen" and other operas created during the period changed the medium forever, bringing forth the cult of realism.
Exactly why Souvorova decided to create her own opera company has its roots in her native country. She was accustomed to working for a state-funded opera company that performed year-round. Upon coming to the U.S. in 1996, she was stunned by how individual opera companies struggle to stay afloat. It was a call to action for Souvorova, who started Bel Cantanti Opera in 2003. Working as a vocal coach, she watched as so many opera singers were graduating from "world-class programs at The Catholic University and the University of Maryland and were now waiting tables." She soon became familiar with every vocalist in the region and often has the pick of opera singers. With so many operatic companies closing, the competition has become fierce. "Singers from as far away as San Francisco and Michigan paid their own way to audition [for "Carmen"]," she notes. From Bel Cantanti Opera's inception, she wanted ticket prices to be "cheap" and performances "intimate. You hear world-class voices in an intimate setting just 10 feet away [from the audience]. People love being in the middle of the drama." While the stages are small, Souvorova keeps building on the production. She started with a keyboard, then added a quartet, and now has an orchestra that includes woodwinds. But the opera company struggles to survive with the help of a grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, contributions and ticket sales. And with each production costing about $30,000 — maybe "a hundred times less than a large opera company's budget" — she is involved in literally every aspect of the production. In just a five-minute time span, the director works with her performers, confers with an electrician and conducts the orchestra while playing keyboard. This little opera company that could is in very capable hands.
Before column inches devoted to the arts started shrinking for all of us in the newspaper biz, I used to cover some of the DC area’s many small music ensembles. While they tend to lack big budgets, showy sets, and superstar vocalists, they provide terrific opportunities for young singers and instrumentalists to develop their respective crafts. As an added bonus, they give suburbanites on both sides of the Potomac a chance to hear great and sometimes forgotten works at reasonable prices and generally without the traffic hassle that a trip to DC can entail.
One of these small organizations is Bel Cantanti, a little opera company I last reviewed when they were still trying to make a go of it in the sanctuary of a suburban Maryland church. Happily, they seem to have found a pair of more spacious homes, performing at the new 1^st Stage Theatre space in Tysons Corner, Virginia and at Rockville’s Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Maryland. Founded in 2003 and still under the direction of its founder, Dr. Katerina Souvorova, Bel Cantanti’s primary goal is to provide a chance for primarily young local vocalists to perform fully staged operas, helping to advance their careers.
Bel Cantanti’s current offering—Georges Bizet’s "Carmen" is just the right choice for drawing an audience in these economic times. It’s shot through with tunes still so popular that most people know them even if they’ve never attended a single opera. Oddly for such an enduring hit, the opera was a flop at its 1875 premiere, albeit mostly for theatrical and political reasons. Unfortunately, Bizet, only 36, died of a heart attack shortly after "Carmen" opened. He never lived to see his masterwork become one of the most popular operas ever, today rivaling even Puccini’s "La Bohème" in annual number of performances.
Like most operas, "Carmen" is built on a relatively simple story, in this case, a tale by Prosper Mérimée via Alexander Pushkin’s original material. The opera follows the fortunes and misfortunes of its eponymous anti-heroine, an amoral gypsy girl whose scandalously outsized appetite for sex and adventure causes nothing but trouble. Carmen encourages and then discards lovers seemingly by the dozen. Her latest is the hapless Don José (the "J" is pronounced like an English "J" in the French here), a low-level soldier who’s a decidedly dim bulb when it comes to the psyche of predatory females. Without much reflection, José abandons his mother, his fiancée, and the military to follow her into a life of crime as a smuggler. His reward? Getting unceremoniously dumped, of course, when Carmen falls for hunky toreador Escamillo. For Carmen, however, this latest tryst is a bad career move—increasingly obvious as the distraught Don Jose plots his revenge.
As Carmen, mezzo-soprano MyeongSook Park turned in a fine, saucy performance with a sultry voice and demeanor that breathed new life into her already lively character. As Don José, the hapless corporal who’s Carmen’s latest target of opportunity, Hansu Kim’s mature, fully developed tenor voice provided just the right counterpoint to his feisty love interest although he occasionally lacked subtlety in his attack. His acting skills proved considerable, as he believably embodied his character’s decline and fall. Baritone Robert Burner’s swaggering toreador, Escamillo, radiated alpha-male authority and sexual maturity with his strong, self-assured, and well-supported voice. And as Micaëla, the opera’s “good girl” and Jose’s discarded fiancée, soprano Angela Marchese nearly stole the show with sweet, mature, beautifully nuanced performances of her signature aria. The remaining cast members did well in their brief solo turns and also subbed ably as the opera’s chorus when required.
A surprisingly good string section, buttressed by a fine oboist and an excellent clarinetist, provided the orchestral accompaniment in this production. Ms. Souvorova conducted and augmented out the ensemble’s sound via dual electronic keyboards, which she played with great skill. The original version of "Carmen" used spoken dialogue to advance some of the action. For much of its history, these were changed into vocal recitatives. Recently, however, more productions, finding that the spoken dialogue actually improves the opera’s pace, are reverting back to Bizet’s original concept. That was Bel Cantanti’s choice this weekend. Their spoken dialogue, however, was translated from the original French into colloquial English. That’s quite helpful for non-French speakers, even if the transitions back to sung French seemed occasionally jarring. A further aid was provided by the company’s generally decent surtitles. Bel Cantanti’s "Carmen" travels back across the Potomac this upcoming weekend, where they will stage their final performances at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.
Bel Cantanti goes from strength to strength, and has now begun to lure to Washington for each production one or two absolutely superb voices though this can make an overall production a bit ragged around the edges when younger local talent is still in embryonic stages.
At this performance, Myeong Sook Park as Carmen and Angela Marchese as Micaela were unquestioned stars in this fourth and final presentation of George Bizet's immortal "Carmen". Marchese has a voice that is liquid gold and honest virtue and Park's voice is liquid passion or tangible anger. Robert Burner as Escamillo was hardly less outstanding, self-absorbed and dignified in his detemination to add Carmen to life's charms before facing possible death in the bullring. Who can resist a chance to see a bad girl come to a bad end, after singing her heart out, and Carmen is one of opera's favorite bad girls.
Dennys Moura, who was an outstanding Nemorino in last summer's "L'Elisir d'Amore", played a tiny role as a smuggler which gave him no opportuntiy to sing solo and this was greatly regretted by those in the audience who knew what latent skills Moura brought to the stage. The other smuggler, Matthew Hill, had a similarly "hidden" voice but suggested with constantly shifting facial moods that he brings a considerable acting talent which will strongly reinforce any future operatic role.
The set was almost not there...a few platforms on which performers could step, a tattered blood red hanging overhead, and a few props such as tables and chairs that cold be used as needed to suggest the tavern of Lillas Pastia. Costumes, as usual with Bel Cantanti, would have been rented from a larger opera company to fit the Washington performers. The choreography for the crowd scenes and fight scenes was ably done by Raven Morris, who managed to keep Carmen vicious but sultry. Hansu Kim as Don Jose was not as believable as he needed to be, and "Carmen" is an opera in which the dangers latent in the various lead characters must be physically represented as well as sung. Escamillo's bravado and Carmen' temporary passion for Don Jose must always be credible against the background of Micaela's passionate devotion and steady virtue, and Don Jose's wavering adherence to duty and honor.
One of the best of Bel Cantanti's many fine opera-on-a-shoestring productions, the troupe's "Giulio Cesare," was filled with firsts on Saturday night. It was the company's first performance of the season; its first use ever of a chamber orchestra instead of the redoubtable Katerina Souvorova on piano; and its first performance in a Virginia location 1- appropriately, the 1st Stage Theater in McLean. And it was, for the most part, first-rate.
Stripped to its essentials, done as two acts instead of three, with minimal staging and without crowd scenes, Handel's 1724 work nevertheless shines through as great drama. It is a long opera -- more than three hours even with just one intermission -- and an extremely difficult one for singers. But Bel Cantanti's mostly young cast held its own throughout.
As Cesare, countertenor Nicholas Tamagna handled his complex runs and vocal ornaments fluently through all eight of his arias. Soprano Bridgid Eversole was his equal as Cleopatra, with eight arias of her own -- beautifully playing the coquette, the manipulator and the tragic heroine. The Mozartean duet in which she realizes that she actually loves Cesare was wonderfully intertwined.
Mezzo-sopranos Anamer Castrello and Francesca Aguado - as Pompey's widow, Cornelia, and her son, Sesto, respectively - were very effective in roles limited emotionally to anger and despair. Castrello's rich voice was especially attractive.
Countertenor Biraj Barkakaty, as Tolomeo, sometimes lost control of his upper register, but his portrayal of Cleopatra's brother and rival as impetuous and almost childlike but very dangerous was convincing. Eric Black as Achilla, Sean Pflueger as Nireno and Charles Hyland as Curio all turned in creditable performances as singers and actors. Deborah Niezgoda's staging, though, did not quite work: She set the opera in some version of the 1940s, so there were lots of modern military uniforms and guns -- and handcuffs -- even as the cast sang of swords and chains.
Artistic Director Souvorova led the very fine 12-member orchestra from a keyboard that respectably imitated a harpsichord. The sound was quite good in the comfortable, intimate space.
On the weekend of October 10 (and again next weekend), the young Washington, D.C. based Bel Cantanti Opera Company is presenting staged performances of Handel's Giulio Cesare. Although there were a handful of internal cuts (the work is given with a tiny orchestra of two stands each of violins and violas, a single French horn and oboe for a few obbligato solos, and electronic harpsichord played by the conductor and artistic founder of the company, Katerina Souvorova, and with no chorus other than the soloists doubling), the opening night performance was essentially a complete presentation of the opera.
If it is impressive that a company which gives three fully staged and often rare operas, undertakes such a Handel performance in its sixth year of existence, (the rest of this year is Peter Brooks' Tragedy of Carmen and a double bill of Le docteur Miracle and Monsieur Choufleuri, and past seasons have included Aleko, Iolanta and other rarities), it is even more impressive that, with Giulio Cesare, Bel Cantanti is highlighting a young American countertenor as Cesare, Nicholas Tamagna, who looks to be one of the most remarkable performers in his vocal range to emerge over the last few decades. Tamagna, who according to his biography only made his professional debut earlier this year, has sung both the typical neophyte's range of the new and the unusual (including a thoroughly demented Ulrica in stage and concert versions - this reviewer can attest on personal experience to Tamagna's ability to handle that role's vocal range without compromise or strain), displays a countertenor voice unlike any other. In general terms, one can divide countertenors into those who sing with a certain clean purity of sound and those who sacrifice purity (or just attain it) to an almost shrill and more 'dramatic' sound. My current favorites in this voice type are Andreas Scholl, Lawrence Zazzo and the currently less-active Michael Chance, but no matter what the theatrical and musical instincts, and however beautiful the sound (in the case of Scholl), the voices themselves necessarily tend to the monochromatic and usually have difficulty blending with other voice types, which have much greater resonance. To these ears, in fact, a countertenor in opera usually pales after a short period - the tonal palette is too limited and the dynamic range constricted Tamagna's sound can be described as that of a sexy, masculine, English alto - it is richly colored, deep in texture, and capable of great dynamic range. What came to mind on more than one occasion on Saturday night was the tonal palette of such singers as Kathleen Ferrier (whose actual range I believe Tamagna exceeds) and Dame Janet Baker. In fact, Tamagna's countertenor sound is so substantial that although his occasional descents into chest voice show a necessary difference in resonance and vocal weight, there is no perceptible change in vocal color, and no weakness in sound in the notes just about the chest, where countertenors are often at their most vulnerable.
What one gets is a masculine countertenor sound, but with all the coloratura flexibility and 'HIP-ness' of the voice type. Not for a moment did Tamagna's voice grate, and in Cesare's great set piece, "Va tacito e nascosto", the depth of sound was simply thrilling, and matched entirely the mood of the aria; in his duet with Cleopatra, "Caro/Bella", Tamagna's sound had all the presence and body of his colleague, and there was no need to suspend disbelief that this was a male Cesare hot in love with his Cleopatra. Tamagna is still a young singer, and obviously will benefit over time with a greater sense of how to deploy his stage resources - his acting can be intense, and promises a great deal, but he will profit by more intensive coaching and training in finding a unitary stage characterization. But the voice itself is entirely 'there' now, simply waiting for the right series of breaks (he sings Gluck's Orfeo in Memphis this spring, apparently), and the basic artistry and expressive intensity seem already formed.
If nothing else on the Bel Cantanti stage quite met this standard - and little could - there was not a performance out of place, and two singers in particular deserve mention. Bridgid Eversole is apparently a local favorite and stalwart, and there's nothing in this difficult role, including lovely sustained soft tones, easy fioritura and a liquid trill, that she couldn't manage; I have heard less capable Cleopatras on considerably more prominent stages. The stage persona, unfortunately, tended to be a bit maudlin - too often. She seemed to rely on 'pulling faces' to express emotion - but this is a matter of taste, and when I thought afterwards why she wasn't, perhaps, singing more extensively elsewhere, I wondered if the voice itself, however pleasing in this small house (it seats, I should think, less than 200, and the stage could not be more than twenty-five feet in length and fifteen in depth), was slightly generic and without that final éclat which separates the good singers from the next level; where artists begin to acquire a specific personality in the voice.
Worth watching too, was the night's Sesto, Francesca Aguado. Her mezzo sound is very solid and if, at the extreme upper and lower limits, the voice isn't entirely developed yet, still, there is something in the tone color and the excellent support, which suggests that a larger career may be in the offing. Biraj Barakaty, our 'other' countertenor, provided a vivid portrayal of an alternately effete and menacing Tolomeo, and it was only in contrast to Tamagna's much greater vocal resources that his work seemed less than fully exemplary.
Before the evening began, the Chair of the Board spoke a few words, and suggested that the audience be prepared for the updating of the piece to the 20th century, which reminded him more of Rommel in Northern Africa than Cesare in Egypt, but in fact for a small company, the updating was reasonable - contemporary military uniforms, discretely accessorized, make sense here, and all the relationships and drama of the opera were retained with integrity. The simple sets - a few movable Roman columns on a raised part of the upper stage, discrete benches and chairs brought in and out when necessary, with rational exits and entrances for the characters, worked quite well, and if at moments Deborah Niezgoda's direction tended to be a bit fussy (there was a tendency to "choreograph" too much of the music, and to try to make "contemporary" the reactions of the characters, in contrast to what the style of the music demands) never once did the direction move towards wretched excess, and in fact this audience seemed to enjoy the vividness with which the characters' dilemmas were portrayed.
Much praise is due to the artistic director, Ms Souvorova. Her choice of tempi was consistently judicious, she managed her small and well-rehearsed band well, and she has a clear sense of what the singers required. Ms Souvorova has obviously nurtured a company which is presenting important work with careful preparation, and in this case of Tamagna, a singer who is destined to go places.
One of Bellini’s lesser-known operas is I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) of 1830. Bel Cantanti Opera’s current production of this opera at the Montgomery College Recital Hall is one of the best musical bargains in the Washington area for the coming weekend, when Friday and Sunday performances will offer the opera again with a $35 ticket price. The story of Romeo and Juliet has had so many adaptations and interpretations that this version, which is not based on Shakespeare’s play but depends instead on earlier versions of the familiar story of two doomed lovers from rival families, was used by Bellini as an excuse for superb singing.
Three of Bel Cantanti Opera’s most familiar talents appear in this production, bass Kwang Kyu Lee as Capellio, the father of Giulietta; soprano Meghan McCall as Giulietta; and mezzo-soprano Jessica Renfro at Romeo. Bass Charlie Hyland will also be familiar to some Bel Cantani Opera audiences because of his role as Colline in several performances of last year’s production of La Boheme. Consistently, Jessica Renfro as Romeo was the Ferrari on stage, lavishly costumed in one of the few believable costumes for this production, alert and quick in her acting, and superb as a singer in a role Bellini draped with opportunities for solo excellence. At times Renfro left her audience almost breathless with admiration as she breathed life into her character and spun melodies into charismatic suggestion.
Meghan McCall was only slightly less effective as Giulietta, and the standard McCall cheering squad was visibly on hand. McCall’s excellence in Mozart’s comic roles might suggest that she is still developing an approach to more “tragic” operatic roles. But Romeo has far more to do, and far more to sing, in this opera that celebrates the deceitful manner in which love must sometimes be accomplished when the lover brings few social advantages.
Tenor Patrick Layton was a somewhat wooden Tebaldo, the intended husband for Giulietta. Layton has an excellent voice, but had no chance on several levels against Renfro’s superior Romeo. The greatest weakness in this production was not the cramped stage or the inadequate set, but rather the weak chorus. Only in the aria for the funeral procession for Giuletta did the chorus suggest an understanding of the music they were singing. Earlier, when they needed to be triumphantly lusty or vigorous in their underscoring of the action, they were simply lackluster.
Each Bel Cantanti Opera production has a slightly different musical backup, and this afternoon Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova at the piano had six chamber musicians (two violinists, a viola player, two cellists, and a harpist) to accompany her from their onstage location.
There is a well-known budget recording of this Bellini opera, with Beverly Sills as Giulietta and Nicolai Gedda as Tebaldo. Bel Cantanti offers a rare opportunity to hear the opera sung live.
Bel Cantanti Opera concluded its two-week Summer Music Festival with three performances, one on Saturday of a medley of operatic arias, and two performances Friday and Sunday of a stripped-down version of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, sung without any chorus.
Two of the five roles were sung by the same singers on both Friday and Sunday (Nemorino and Sergeant Belcore), but the roles of Adina, Doctor Dulcamara and Giannetta were performed by different singers on the two nights. Although many patrons of Bel Cantanti have grown accustomed to seeing Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova at the piano during an entire performance, the brevity of the Summer Music Festival made it essential that Dr. Souvorova focus her energies on working with the singers rather than providing musical accompaniment during the performances. She was therefore supplemented by Nicholas Catravas, the rehearsal pianist for the Catholic University Summer Theater Opera Company.
L’Elisir d’Amore has two splendid comic roles, Belcore with a foolish, almost stupid bravado and aggressive military pretensions, and Doctor Dulcamara as a traveling con artist who absorbs each village’s money just in time to leave safely before his ineffective potions can be tried. Eric Christopher Black made an impressive Belcore, lunging into romance at the slightest hint of feminine availability and pulling flowers from his tight strutting uniform. Black has a strong baritone voice and a very flexible face that twisted easily from assertive smugness to wounded vanity. Shannon Steed gave an exciting entrance as Dulcamara, though his Italian diction tended to dissolve as the evening went on.
The unquestioned star of the evening was Dennys Moura as Nemorino. Only a college senior this fall at the University of Maryland, Moura is clearly marked out for an early rise to fame as a tenor. He sings with obvious emotion, great clarity, and instinctive and convincing acting ability. Moura’s voice is lovely to hear, and his rendition of “Una furtiva lagrima” left his audience dazzled. Moura’s will be a career to watch, as he adds other roles to his repertoire and gains in experience.
Tamara Tucker was an impressive Adina, though her habit of knitting her forehead muscles into a tense position as she approached high notes became noticeable. Vocal accuracy could be supplemented by greater charm, but all of the singers were naturally anxious as so little time had been provided for pulling an entire opera together during two weeks.
Shana Hammett as Giannetta was seductive when the role called for an audacious approach to the newly-rich Nemorino.
Bel Cantanti’s announced 2009-2010 season includes Handel’s Giulio Cesare in October, Bizet’s Carmen in March and Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle joined with Offenbach’s Monsieur Choufleuri in May. Washington opera lovers now follow this reliable little company closely.
What a treat for Bel Cantanti Opera's young singers: doing "Don Pasquale" with François Loup, a top-notch buffo bass-baritone. And what a treat for the audience on Sunday afternoon at the Olney Theater Center for the Arts: Loup also stage-directed, creating a fast-moving blend of visual fun and delightful music.
There is nothing profound in the plot of an old bachelor who gets his comeuppance after deciding to marry. But Donizetti's music takes the high jinks well beyond their commedia dell'arte origins as it bustles from ensemble to ensemble -- there are only two standard arias in the opera.
Loup emphasized constant movement and numerous cute touches, and if his voice is not quite as resonant as it used to be, his musicality is excellent and his characterization of the doddering Pasquale was finely nuanced.
The production's vocal star was Meghan McCall, a Norina of bright flirtatiousness and delicious comic timing. Her entrance aria, "So anch'io la virtù magica," had the flair and sparkle of operetta, and her transformation from innocent to harridan was wonderfully pointed.
As Pasquale's nephew and Norina's lover, Ernesto, Adam Hall got the emotion right -- notably in "Cercherò lontana terra" -- but sounded thin and strained in his upper range.
Eric Christopher Black was a fine, full-voiced Dr. Malatesta with a good sense of physical comedy. The music was supplied by Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova at the piano and four string players (a fifth, the cellist, was ill on Sunday). The staging worked well, especially a flippable portrait with Pasquale on one side and Norina on the other. The spirited performance repeats Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Earlier today, the sad news that Baltimore Opera has declared bankruptcy and cancelled its two planned spring productions swept musical circles in both Baltimore and Washington. Tonight, a triumphant Bel Cantanti Opera production of Verdi’s beloved La Traviata/ was presented in the resonant concert space at the Embassy of Austria. Yet even there, in the heart of Washington’s expanding embassy community, what may be the greatest musical bargain in Washington faced a few empty seats in a time of distressing economic predictions. Bel Cantanti Opera continues to move from strength to strength. Director Katerina Souvorova has created this year handsome four-color covers for all programs, and the extravagant $150 coffee table book that appeared to mark the fifth anniversary of Bel Cantanti Opera has now been attractively reduced to a diminished size in paper covers that costs only $25.
But the greatness of Bel Cantanti Opera continues to be its dedicated young singers. Soprano Amy Call, who last sang for Bel Cantanti Opera in the March 2008 production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, was superb in the role of Violetta Valéry from the moment this production of La Traviata began. Call has a rich, full voice which is warmly emotional, and her stage presence tonight was outstanding. Call’s singing has always been impressive, but now her acting skills are being polished to permit her to control a concert platform or stage. Tonight Call’s tender eyes expressed a wide range of emotions, and she created the gravitational pull that drew the other singers into a constant and steady orbit around her. Tenor Riccardo Shim sang the role of Alfredo Germont, Violetta’s lover, and was fervent in both love and indignation, as well as his final regrets and encouragement to the dying Violetta. Baritone Jerett Gieseler was Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont. Gieseler is well known to many in Washington because of his participation in the Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart Emerging Singers Program. Gieseler has a fine stage presence, and a voice of great dignity and lyrical intensity. The minor roles are more forgettable, though Alexandra Boulé-Buckley as Annina left many in the audience looking forward to her appearance in Don Pasquale in the spring. Jessica Renfro, who sang the role of Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, easily tossed off the slight but elegant role of Flora Bervoix tonight. Bel Cantanti Opera has often survived musically in the past with only piano accompaniment and four string performers. Tonight there were six string performers plus Katerina Souvorova on the piano, and a far richer sound resulted. The set was unchanging, but minimal enough that it could fit onto small stages in two different locations and yet provide space for up to twelve guests for the two party scenes that require background choruses.
On Tuesday evening at the Austrian Embassy, a ray of sunshine peeked through opera's gathering storm. Bel Cantanti gave a delightful performance of "La Traviata" -- one day after the nearby Baltimore Opera Company was reported to be bankrupt. Run on a modest budget under the capable direction of local vocal coach Katerina Souvorova, Cantanti provides promising young singers the chance to sing hallmark roles. In what emerged as a driving account of the Verdi chestnut, most of the artists filled their parts as though their lives depended on it, saying that the genre can pierce through tough times.
Perhaps fittingly, this was by no means a full-scale production. Sets consisted of red-velvet chairs and a sofa, costumes were tuxes and gowns. No pit orchestra here: A small circle of strings surrounded Souvorova at the piano. This musical dramatization of the Dumas fils tale about star-crossed love between a tubercular courtesan and a wayward playboy could use new approaches. Placing the work on a smaller scale goes to the work's core, peeling away the syrupy layers that pile up after repeated performances.
Amy Call and Jerett Gieseler showed that singing is at the center of "La Traviata." Call, making a name for herself in some European houses, sang radiantly with a healthy bloom and focus. She held nothing back, her lovely soprano resounding across the hall. Gieseler, as Germount pere, displayed a warm baritone. Riccardo Shim was less strong as Alfredo; his sound was more diffuse and wooden, albeit with a fine top. Jessica Renfro, Aaron McNeil and Alexandra Boule-Buckley made fine contributions, while that slim but colorful musical accompaniment was autumnal and rhythmically unflagging.
After a successful decade-plus run, the musical Rent will finally close on Broadway this year. So why not celebrate by going back to where it all began. In this case, to opera composer Puccini and his early hit La Boheme. It just so happens that Bel Cantanti is closing their season with a production that is bare bones technically but very strong vocally. Rent used hip musical styles and the more up-to-date AIDS angle, but basically told the same story that Puccini did: Abunch of friends living in the poor section of the city while trying to realize their artistic dreams. The story soon focuses on the writer Rodolfo and his meeting Christmas Eve with the seamstress Mimi. It is love at first candlelight but their romance is hardly smooth, with their poverty and Mimi’s illness complicating everything.
What works is the music, as the cast is consistently strong. There’s a rotating roster of singers, but on opening night Lucas Tannous made a fine Rodolpho, nicely handling all the mood swings of his characters, while Claire Kuttler made a poignant Mimi. Kuttler nicely underplayed the final death scene, which can come off way too melodramatic if not handled properly. The real stars turned out to be Zachary Nelson and Kotnim Chong in the Marcello/Musetta subplot. This all too often gets lost in the shuffle, but not here. The humor of Chong’s flirtatious Musetta with Nelson’s slow burn as Marcello works well together. The surtitles were not working opening night but you did not need a translation to follow what was going on with this comic couple. But the whole cast is good, including Michael Miersma and Charlie Hyland as fellow Bohemians who have a great time horsing around the set. Sean Pflueger is also good in two comic roles: a befuddled landlord and later another man under Musetta’s flirtatious spell.
The music was well played in a version for piano and string quartet. It is a reminder that Puccini is overlooked for his orchestration, but the composer was marvelous at color and that gets lost here. And while Puccini is never mentioned along side Wagner and his leitmotifs, this stripped down version shows Puccini constantly reusing themes to hold scenes together and as powerful reminders later in the drama.
The sets are basic and not elaborate, but quite functional, although scene changes opening night took a surprisingly long time. Lighting is also basic but Mimi’s death scene came off particularly well. Even though this is hardly the most obscure opera in the world, the lack of surtitles opening night was definitely a hindrance, although the feuding Musetta and Marcello easily overcame it. This is not the Washington Opera, and the modest technical aspects work better here than they would for, say Turandot. What you need are vocalists that can hit those ardent melodic lines as this tragic love tale wends its course to its inevitable conclusion. That Bel Cantanti had in spades. La Boheme continues Saturdays and Sundays at the old Round House Theater on Randolph Road through June 1. For more information call 301-438-8682 or visit their Web site at www.belcantanti.com
May 16. Director Katerina Souvorova of Cantanti Opera has cast three tenors for the role of Rodolfo for their current production of La Boheme (To 6/1) but no one can outshine the distinctive singing of Lucas Tannous. La Boheme is so well known by opera audiences that temporary glitches in surtitles on opening night hardly mattered. The plot and glorious music of Puccini were immediately recalled and enjoyed. With this Bel Cantanti Opera every one of the cast members seems to have fun. And one's immediacy to the singers at the Randolph Road Theater is so superior to that found in large opera houses. The stripped down sets, the small string quartet with piano and the costumes were sufficient to suspend disbelief for the drama. Every opera by this group encloses a surprise and for this performance one could enjoy the radiant voice of Clair Kuttler as Mimi. She could pour music as naturally as the other singers breathe. Her only disadvantage was that she appeared too healthy for a dying scene. Zachary Nelson made an excellent Marcello. Poor Musetta was over costumed to look like an easy courtesan rather than a gold digger who manipulated men but Kotnim Chung had a lovely voice that drove Marcello into distraction. The evening ended on a non-operatic note as Ms. Souvorova commented on Mr. Tannous birthday so a mixed blend of audience voices along with the trained singing voices sang a "Happy Birthday".
May 25. Bel Cantanti Opera delivered a strong new cast for its May 25 performance of La Boheme. Only returning Charlie Hyland, as Colline, this time sang a memorable and affecting rendition to his soon-to-be-pawned tattered coat in Act IV. Daniel Collins was an effective Schaunard as he gave the required energy and personality to the one character who isn't given a single aria. Jessie Sutherland was more evenly matched as Musetta to Marcello than the previous singer of the role. She especially was most effective with the common humanity that must be given to the role in Act IV. Heyk Chae sang Rodolfo with a strong tenor voice but, at times, this singer's acting ability outran his ability to project genuine emotion in his singing voice. He was more effective in the duets or quartets. The acknowledged star of the evening was soprano Emily Ezzie as Mimi. She brought a lovely sustained legato to her major arias as well as considerable acting skills. And she projected emotion quite effectively. This very fine group is looking for venues for its next season in Montgomery County or Fairfax County. Feel free to make suggestions.
Bel Cantanti Opera continues to be one of the best kept musical secrets in the Washington area. Under the energetic direction of artistic director Katerina Souvorova, the assembled singers (who double for major roles during each run of a selected opera) deliver thoroughly professional versions of leading operas, using borrowed costumes, minimal sets, and the barest of musical accompaniment. But the singing can be outstanding, and often there are at least three singers in a performance ready to go on to better known opera companies, singers who remain loyal to Souvorova because of the intense training she can provide singers at early moments in promising careers.
Tonight, three singers were especially outstanding. Bass-baritone Lee Kwang Kyu, who sang a solo recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater several days earlier, made a superb Osmin, full of violent anger and passionate schemes for physical reprisal against his Christian captives, yet damaged and incomplete in his lack of human compassion. Lee Kwang Kyu has a voice fully capable of projecting all aspects of Osmin’s rather evil character, and comic acting abilities that emphasized continually the essential foolishness of this most aggressive of Turkish guards.
Amy Call, who is already singing around the world, particularly in Mozart operas, was superbly noble though her voice during the first act sometimes exceeded the capacity of the small auditorium in which she was singing. As the evening went on, this problem vanished, and by the conclusion of Act Three Call was dominating the stage with eloquent melodies whenever she sang. One left thinking she could sing the Sears Roebuck catalog to an enthusiastic full house, and Mozart only made her seem seraphic.
Meghan McCall, who appeared last year as Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro for Bel Cantanti Opera, was again a smashing success, this time as Blondchen, the confidant of Constanze. McCall has a considerable comic talent for acting, and moves confidently across the stage in whatever scene she appears in. When McCall and Lee Kwang Kyu were able to sing a duet, the two voices were well balanced, and their equivalent comic talents made any of their joint scenes electric.
The Turkish costumes were effective, and Pasha Selim, who has little to sing in an opera that concludes with his extraordinary generosity to the son of his bitterest enemy, glittered in eloquent fashion. The set was clever, but almost Elizabethan as there was one primary side entrance along with two smaller side entrances at the back of a central area guarded by large gates that were continuously opened or closed. The waterless Turkish bath in which Osmin bathes while dressed in a yellow wet suit and smoking a large cigar caused many smiles within the audience.
Bel Cantanti Opera makes a virtue of necessity in Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio: Chronically underfunded, this company knows how to do much with little. The audience sits very close to the performers at the Randolph Road Theatre in Silver Spring and if that highlights the seams in the sets, it also makes it easier to hear some very fine young singers. The two who were most fun at Sunday's matinee were Meghan McCall as Blondchen, blending superb comic timing with vocal accuracy in a winsome and winning performance; and Kwang Kyu Lee as Osmin, using his very full bass voice to toss off the coloratura passages in "Wie will ich triumphieren" with aplomb -- even managing to touch the two low D's. The confrontation between these two made for a hilarious bathtub scene in Act 2, with cigar-chomping Osmin wearing a wet suit that made him look, aptly, like a giant hornet. Susan Wheeler, dressed like a China doll, was a little brittle at first as Constanze, but her voice warmed up: Her "Martern aller Arten" was emotional and effective. Adam Hall, as the rather wooden Belmonte, got vocally stronger in later acts. David Bitler was a very active Pedrillo and did bewilderment well. In the speaking role of Pasha Selim, Tom O'Grady mingled stolidity and emotion. The music was ably played by a string quartet plus Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova on piano -- no Turkish-style percussion, alas, but the production's many felicitous touches more than made up for it. Repeats, with some cast rotation, are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
There's a well-known anecdote about the reaction of the Emperor Joseph to Abduction from the Seraglio, the German opera he had asked Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to compose. Apparently the Emperor liked it just fine — except for one thing: ‘‘Too many notes,” he complained.
‘‘Supposedly,” laughs Swiss bass and Metropolitan Opera favorite Francois Loup, the University of Maryland professor who is directing Abduction for the Bel Cantanti Opera Company. ‘‘I don’t know if it’s a legend or not.” What he does know is that the opera, which Mozart composed in 1782 (with a libretto in German adapted by J. G. Stephanie the Younger from Friedrich Breitzner’s Belmonte and Constanze), is ‘‘a kind of story that would attract people for its colorful fantasy. There’s the harem with all these beautiful girls, the comedy, the arias and duets, and the morality, the forgiveness. ‘‘It’s a touching story in the end.” The story — Konstanze, a Spanish noblewoman, is abducted by the Pasha, added to his harem and rescued, in the end, by her beloved Belmonte. ‘‘It’s a comedy,” says Loup. ‘‘From a time when artists were attracted to everything from the Orient. It was exotic. ‘‘Now people are interested in St. Bart’s, Hawaii. Back then, everyone wanted to go to Turkey.”
Highs and lows Of course, if you want to see The Abduction of the Seraglio, there’s no need to travel farther than Silver Spring, where Bel Cantanti, the local opera company that gives young performers a place to strut their considerable stuff, will be performing. ‘‘This show is not very often done,” says Katerina Souvorova, the company’s general and artistic director and the show’s music director. ‘‘It contains the most difficult arias, and it’s extremely difficult to find the singers.” But Souvorova does find them. A vocal coach on the faculty of the Catholic University of America, the Russian-born pianist — she earned a doctorate, master of music degree and artist diploma with highest honors in piano performance from the Conservatory of Belarus — started Bel Cantanti in 2003. ‘‘Our company is not even 5 years old,” she observes, ‘‘and it’s the one company in this area that provides this experience, this level of artistry, of singing. ‘‘The level of singing is incredible.” Which is great for fans — but something of a dilemma for opera singers. ‘‘It’s one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever done in my life,” says Amy Call, the James Mason University teacher and doctoral candidate who sings the role of Konstanze. ‘‘You’re on stage a lot, you don’t get much of a break, and there are three arias, two back-to-back, in the span of 45 minutes.” The composer’s passion, she observes, is undeniable, but his ‘‘many notes” make some of his roles difficult to perform. ‘‘He definitely knew what he wanted,” she laughs. ‘‘I think Mozart loved his women, but maybe he had a passion of hatred for some of them as well!”
Noteworthy One woman Mozart would have admired, according to Loup, is Souvorova. ‘‘She’s a Renaissance person; she can do anything,” he says. ‘‘She is moving scenery, painting it, and then she takes a hanky, cleans her fingers and plays the piano like a goddess.” Bel Cantanti, he says, is the little opera company that could, a group that operates on a shoestring budget and brings together opera talent and the audiences that most appreciate it. ‘‘This gives a chance to young artists who are not at the level yet to perform with big companies,” he says. ‘‘It also gives a chance to the public, a chance to go to the opera locally, to bring the family — you don’t have to pay $80 a ticket or dress the kids in a tuxedo!”
You don’t have to speak German, either, even though The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung aus Dem Serail, as Mozart and the Emperor would say) is a singspiel, with spoken dialogue in German punctuated by arias and duets. Bel Cantanti provides English super titles, and the three acts are relatively easy to follow: Belmonte enters the palace of the Selim Pasha to retrieve Kostanze; the Pasha and Osmin, his servant, suspect funny business from their captive, her maid Blondchen and Belmonte’s servant Pedrillo; they escape, but are caught and finally forgiven by the Pasha and sent on their way, back to Spain. "This is why it’s never boring,” says Loup. ‘‘You switch from serious to comedy; you have beautiful, festive Turkish music. It is difficult to sing, but also the most gorgeous music.” Because sometimes, as Mozart knew very well, there can never be too many notes.
Bel Cantanti presents Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio at 7:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday and next, and 3 p.m. this Sunday and next in the Randolph Road Theater, 4010 Randolph Road, Silver Spring. Tickets are $35, $30 for groups of 10 or more, $25 for students. Log on to www.belcantanti.com.
Don’t worry about that “opera” label, even though Humperdink was a Wagnerian. You will not spend four hours listening to helmeted Rhine Maidens. The score is filled with simple, folk-like tunes with the reverent “Evening Prayer” sequence justifiably famous. The story is pure fairy tale fantasy and the whole thing is a little over 90 minutes long, including intermission. The story is the familiar Hansel and Gretel tale with one major difference. The Grimm fairy tale had an evil stepmother plotting the demise of the kids, while this version has a more loving mother who gets angry with the kids but does not want to do them any harm. Nevertheless there the kids are, lost in the woods and later threatened by a witch whose eating habits are definitely not vegetarian. OK, there is a little holdover from the Grimm fairy tale at Bel Cantanti because while Michelle Rice does a good job as the long suffering mother, she really comes into her own in the second half as the Witch. Decked out in black and purple, Rice cackles and gloats with the best of them and certainly deserves her fate when the kids get through with her Meanwhile Meghan McCall’s Gretel and Jessica Renfro’s Hansel are loveable, though at times mischievous, kids always ready for a tussle but truly caring for one another in the extended woodland scene. Their soprano voices are very good and they do a great job together in the “Evening Prayer” segment. Bryan Jackson as the loving father and Kara Morgan as the Sandman do a fine job in supporting roles. This is not the Washington Opera, so Molly McClain’s set design and Kathleen McGhee’s costuming are simple but effective. Katerina Souvorova does a fine job playing the piano reduction, but this is the one place I wish this was the Washington Opera. Humperdink’s score is simple but very rich and with the full orchestra you get a lush “Evening Prayer” and a wild “Witch’s Ride.” Just a piano reduction, no matter how well played, cannot do this score full justice. But director Debbie Niezgoda keeps the cast moving nicely and gets good acting from all involved, still too much of a rarity in opera productions. McCall and Renfro are particularly good convincing us they are normal children while Rice has a great solo as a mother knowing how poverty is ruining her family. When I was growing up, the TV opera Amahl and the Night Visitors and this Humpredink score were fairly regular holiday events. Both have vanished from sight, although Bel Cantanti revived Amahl a few years ago. Like Amahl, Hansel and Gretel is ideal for a holiday seasonal offering and makes a perfect introduction to opera for children and adults still leery of this art form. The Humperdink work is revived far less often than it should be and definitely worth checking out. Hansel and Gretel continues Saturday afternoons at 3 p.m. at the old Round House Theater on Randolph Road through Jan. 5. The remainder of Bel Cantanti’s current season includes Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio in March and an abridged version of Puccini’s La Boheme in May. For more information, call 301-260-8283 or visit their Web site at www.belcantanti.com.
Bel Cantanti delivered an ebullient performance of L'Elisir d'Amore at the Randolph Road Theatre in Silver Spring on Sunday. Reduced to its essence -- no chorus, and with piano, string quartet and onstage trumpeter instead of full orchestra -- the opera didn't seem 175 years old. The comedy burbled and bubbled brightly in a burst of strongly crafted characters. And Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova's pianistic prowess moved it along beautifully. Meghan McCall was just about letter-perfect -- and note-perfect -- as the flirtatious, don't-pin-me-down Adina, her exceptionally pure tone melding with a gift for physical comedy. Aurelio Dominguez sang plaintively as Nemorino, the rather dim young man who woos her -- unsuccessfully, until he gets help from a phony love potion in a huge plastic bottle that sails past the audience on a zip line. As the phony potion maker Dulcamara, Andrew Adelsberger made a marvelous mountebank, praising his own skill at breakneck speed in Act 1 before realizing in Act 2 that his machinations have met their match in Adina's. The supporting characters held their own. Matt Osifchin was full-voiced and appropriately full of himself as Belcore. And Jessica Renfro was simply marvelous as Gianetta, with a bright, clear voice and deliciously playful comic timing. Repeat performances are scheduled for Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3. No elixir is required to love the production.
The mad scene in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" is justly famous -- and often parodied, as in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Ruddigore." Most of the rest of this potboiler -- based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, potboiler purveyor par excellence -- is far less distinguished. And it is extremely unfair to rest the weight of this coloratura showpiece on the slender shoulders of a young and developing soprano. But Bel Cantanti opera company has done just that, casting Meghan McCall as Lucia; it is to McCall's tremendous credit that she rises so far. Literally rises: The high E-flats in the mad scene are stratospheric. On Sunday at the Randolph Road Theatre in Silver Spring, McCall started a bit tentatively: Her Act 1 "Regnava nel Silenzio" was passionate but a touch strained. But in "Lucia," soprano and tenor must pace themselves for their final scenes, and McCall grew consistently more self-assured. So did Yoon Soo Shin as Edgardo, his slightly rough-hewn voice gaining power all the way to his absurdly protracted death aria. As Enrico, Matt Osifchin showed a full, rich baritone but could use more villainous implacability. Kwang Kyu Lee was impressively stolid as Raimondo, even when singing seriously about heaven to Donizetti's silly tune. In smaller roles, Alexander Kugler was a suitably bewildered Arturo, Jennifer Fry an empathetic Alisa and Jim Biggs a strong, simple Normanno. Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova's sure-handed piano playing was well supplemented by string quartet, flute and harp. But this opera belongs to Lucia -- and on Sunday, it belonged to McCall. Repeat performances are scheduled for Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Now ensconced in its new home at the Randolph Road Theatre in Silver Spring -- the old Round House Theatre -- the Bel Cantanti opera company is improving the quality of its productions as well as providing a better showcase for the up-and-coming young singers who form the company's core. A case in point is the company's fine production of Gaetano Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," which opened its two-weekend run Friday. Making good use of nifty period costumes rented from the Washington National Opera and maximizing the use of some creaky castle steps, Bel Cantanti has produced a surprisingly effective and extraordinarily moving presentation of what may very well be Donizetti's grandest bel canto opera. Based on Sir Walter Scott's romance "The Bride of Lammermoor," "Lucia di Lammermoor" premiered in Naples in 1835. Set near Edinburgh around 1700, it's the story of a family feud, which comes to a rather bad ending for all. On the brink of bankruptcy, Lord Enrico decides to restore his family's fiscal well-being by arranging a marriage between his sister, Lucia, and the wealthy Lord Arturo. Unfortunately, Lucia is already in love with Sir Edgardo, whose father has been slain earlier by Enrico. Lucia's wily brother, knowing Edgardo is away on a diplomatic mission, convinces Lucia, by means of a forged letter, that her lover has been unfaithful. She reluctantly gives in to her brother's demand that she marry Arturo, and disaster follows.In the vocally challenging role of Lucia, soprano Meghan McCall was impressive, navigating her way through Donizetti's wicked ornamentation with smooth professionalism, although an occasional high note could have used a bit more hang time. She astutely underplayed Lucia's famous "Mad Scene," an extended solo that can get a little histrionic. This was a good dramatic choice as it added a great deal of sympathy to her character. As Edgardo, tenor Yoon Soo Shin displayed an astonishingly powerful and convincing instrument. In the developing post-Domingo age, where booming-yet-expressive tenors seem to be a rarity, his career already shows great promise. Baritone Bryan Jackson was also at the top of his game as the evil Enrico, projecting a cold authority with his knife-edged voice and excellent diction. And as the cleric Raimondo, bass Kwang Kyu Lee's full, rounded tones were as effective in his solo excursions as they were crucial in providing the necessary ballast for the opera's unforgettable sextet. Good singing was the rule in lesser roles as well, and the small but important chorus provided excellent support. Bel Cantanti can't afford a full orchestra, but its primarily string and piano ensemble, directed from the keyboard by the company's general and artistic director Katerina Souvorova, worked quite well with the singers, helping to showcase each voice in the way that a larger production might have missed
The Embassy of Austria has fittingly chosen to conclude its yearlong celebration of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 250th birthday with a nifty little production of the composer's ever-popular "Le Nozze di Figaro" ("The Marriage of Figaro"). Performances of this holiday treat will be repeated there and at other venues over the holiday season by Bel Cantanti, an up-and-coming local troupe boasting fine young singers and budget ticket prices. Bel Cantanti accomplishes its surprisingly polished productions with budget sets and sumptuous costuming. But it's the company's talented vocalists who really bring each production alive. Bel Cantanti's current production of "Figaro" rotates two casts of principals. Friday night's opening performance at the Austrian Embassy cast Bryan Jackson as Figaro, Meghan McCall as Susanna, Matt Osifchin as the count and Angela Marchese as the countess. All were impressive. Miss McCall, who seemed a bit understated early in the first act, quickly adjusted to the room's acoustics, blooming into a vivacious and confident Susanna. Mr. Jackson was equally effective as the swaggering trickster Figaro. Mr. Osifchin's authoritative bass register made him a count to be reckoned with, while Miss Marchese's rich, burnished voice, imbued the countess' signature Act IV aria with an almost palpable poignancy. In the non-rotating trouser role of Cherubino, the trouble-causing page, Jessica Renfro was a standout, matching a sparkling voice with a surprising talent for physical comedy. In smaller roles, Jeffrey Tarr, Alexandra Christoforakis, Alexandre Kugler, Zachary Nelson and Waka Osifchin also sparkled. The company's general and artistic director, Katerina Souvorova, accompanied her singers brilliantly on the piano with the assistance of a fine string quartet.
OK, first things first: say it. You know you want to. Figaro. Fee-ga-ro. Figaro, Figaro, Fee-ga-ro. Now then, take note: The libretto at hand does not contain that most famous of operatic riffs, although it does have a main character with that marvelously melodic name: Figaro. So get it out of your system — Fee-ga-ro! — because Rossini’s ‘‘The Barber of Seville” is not the Figaro of the moment. We’re talking Figaro, the servant of the Count Almaviva, the fiancé of the housemaid Susanna, the hero of the opera written in 1785 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Yes! Because here we are in the final month of 2006, the year that marked the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in Salzburg, Austria. Now, maybe you’ve spent a lot of time remembering the rascally 18th century musical genius, or maybe you’ve been remiss. Either way, when Bel Cantanti Opera Company stages ‘‘Le Nozze di Figaro” (‘‘The Marriage of Figaro”), you don’t need to be a Mozart maniac or even an ogler of operas to enjoy it.
‘‘Mozart wrote comedies,” points out Meghan McCall, the petite flame-haired soprano who plays Susanna, Figaro’s intended. ‘‘In ‘Nozze de Figaro,’ it’s so lighthearted. There are so many sticky situations people are trying to get out of left and right. Everyone’s running around, trying to find a back door.” McCall herself found a back door into opera performance, getting started at age 22. ‘‘Opera was never in my house,” admits the Silver Spring native, who is working on a master’s degree in opera performance at the University of Maryland. ‘‘My mother is now growing to love it as I do, but I was never exposed to it. I had to play catch up.”
That wasn’t the case for Bryan Jackson, who plays Figaro. Born in Birmingham, Ala., and reared in Rochester, N.Y., Jackson grew up doing voiceovers: ‘‘I was one of those bratty kid actors,” he laughs. When he was 9, his mom took him to two operas in one weekend: ‘‘Aida” and ‘‘Porgy and Bess.” ‘‘She’s a music fan,” Jackson explains, ‘‘and she finds opera interesting, especially these two with their African themes.” She was hoping her son might turn out to be the next Al Jarreau, not a baritone singing operas all over the world, Jackson says, but that’s how it turned out. He studied labor relations in college at State University of New York at Potsdam (‘‘I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of working for the union”), but went on to study at the Opera School at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. ‘‘I came to music by way of theater, I was plucked from another discipline,” he says. ‘‘In my 20s, I discovered I could sing. I was the liberal arts student with the big voice.”
Even though they are highly trained, accomplished and experienced opera singers, McCall and Jackson and many of the other performers in the Bel Cantanti Opera troupe are, well, young. That’s why general and artistic director Katerina Souvorova founded this little company in the first place. ‘‘Of course, the most important [thing] is, for the young singers, to give them an opportunity to perform nice music, healthy music, ‘bel canto’ music,” says Souvorova, a newly sworn-in U.S. citizen who retains the Old World accent of her native Belarus. Back there, she studied piano. ‘‘My professor in conservatory belonged to the very famous Russian piano school. The main criterion for her was you have to play the way people sing,” she says. So Souvorova started working with singers and coaching them. In the European tradition, she explains, there is always a strong connection between the conservatory and the opera house, and European opera companies are much more prolific than those in the U.S. ‘‘If you are good and you graduate, you enter the opera house,” she says. ‘‘Here the system is a little different.” Here, someone like McCall needs to land a contract (she has; she joins the Young Artists Program of the Cleveland Opera after graduation) or create a freelance artistic career like Jackson has. But Souvorova, who coaches opera at Catholic University, started Bel Cantanti four years ago to give young artists a place to showcase and to give audiences a taste of classic opera.
‘‘For me, as a singer, my relationship to the audience is crucial,” says McCall. She has the pert prettiness of a 1960s ingénue, and an incongruously big soprano voice. ‘‘There’s an important dynamic with the audience, an energy that I feed off of, and that’s what’s so important about people coming to see opera. ‘‘Feeling that energy is what’s worth the ticket.” ‘‘Thirty dollars and you can almost touch her,” jokes Souvorova, and yet here in the small but perfectly formed theater of the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, it’s easy to see the truth of it. Every note, every gesture, every expression is delivered up close and personal, albeit in Italian with English surtitles. ‘‘Having sung on cavernous stages around the world, I can tell you it’s like singing into a cave,” says Jackson. ‘‘Here, the pressure of shouting something out to a 4,000-seat house is gone, and you can really pay attention to the colors, the layers. ‘‘Especially with Mozart, you want to have all those details in place.”
Among the details are period costumes from the Washington Opera. McCall describes the effect as ‘‘an art form ... a fantasy land ... a fashion show.” Jackson figures the detailed costumes serve to reinforce the attention to detail that characterizes the whole Bel Cantanti experience. And Souvorova, ever the teacher, notes that ‘‘It’s very important to give them their experience: how to walk onstage, how to sit, how to speak, how to behave. ‘‘It gives them perspective.” It gives the audience perspective, too — perspective on opera. The Arts Barn stage is too small for the string quartet that will accompany performances at the Austrian Embassy and at the old Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, but Souvorova will accompany on piano. And McCall and Jackson promise that between the programs, the surtitles and the acting, the audience will completely get the plot, which goes kind of like this:
Figaro wants to marry Susanna; his boss, the Count, has designs on her, too, which annoys everyone including the Countess Almaviva. But older woman Marcellina has a thing for Figaro, and she gets a wealthy doctor to help her set a snare for him. Music and mayhem ensue, as they say, and after a couple of hours (including intermission), everything settles down again. ‘‘If people don’t know anything about opera,” says McCall, ‘‘This is the one to start off with."
Bel Cantanti’s triumphant performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the Embassy of Austria offers useful hints to many musical organizations in the Washington area. First, BelCantanti reinforces the fact that the Washington/Baltimore area is overflowing with trained operatic voices, many of whom are able to present concert-level performances combined with considerable acting skill. Second, Bel Cantanti shows how skillfully a major opera can be reduced to its basic musical score and performed without the full elaboration of sets and costumes many now consider essential for any opera performance. Third, Bel Cantanti demonstrates that prices for opera tickets can still be kept at an affordable level, making the cost of a ticket to a live performance fully competitive with the cost of a recorded CD version of the same opera.
Bel Cantanti director Katerina Souvorova created the company in 2003, and herself accompanied the entire Figaro performance as pianist, along with a string quartet. The reduced musical background permitted the voices of the singers in Figaro to shine in the relatively small concert space available at the Embassy of Austria. Bel Cantanti is able to shift the location of its performances among several spaces during the run of each opera, as Figaro will also be performed at the Embassy of Germany and the Randolph Road Theater later in December.The richness of talent assembled by Bel Cantanti is shown by the fact that each of the four major roles in Figaro (Figaro, his wife-top-be Susanna, Count Almaviva and the Countess Almaviva) is performed on alternating nights by different singers. Meghan McCall made a superlative Susanna on the opening night, and Bryan Jackson brought to the role of Figaro both a strong voice and a deft comic sense of acting. Angela Marchese made an impressively lyrical Countess, and Matthew Osifchin brought a passionate baritone voice to the role of the Count, though Osifchin was not always randy enough for the role’s intricate implications. The costumes developed increasing richness as the opera proceeded, but throughout the Count’s costumes were perhaps not distinctive enough to set him off as a rich aristocrat in essential control of the destinies of the other characters. The "group" arias in Acts III and IV were lovely in their blending of distinctive voices, though Meghan McCall was consistently the most outstanding voice in all combinations. Jessica Renfro made a continually amusing Cherubino, playing a role in which traditionally a female singer pretends to be a man later pretending to be a woman. Alexandra Christoforakis as Marcellina, eventually revealed to be Figaro’s mother, stole every scene in which she appeared as she created a low-life virago. Alexader Kugler turned the relatively minor role of Basilio into an important character and should have a career worth watching in the future.
This is great Christmas time fare - I’m talking about Mozart’s wonderfully light-hearted opera, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) being staged by the Bel Cantanti Opera Company. Tomorrow, Tuesday the 19th they will be performing at the Austrian Embassy and then it’s on to the Randolph Road Theater in Silver Spring for performances on Fri., Dec. 22 and Fri., Dec. 29. This is first class opera performed by budding, local operatic stars. Under director Dr. Katerina Souvorova, the Bel Cantanti Opera Company has emerged as a great showcase for area talent. In Le Nozze di Figaro, the characters delightfully hide themselves, at times behind a plant or wearing cloaks and hoods or other flimsy disguises. Figaro (Bryan Jackson) and his fiancé, Susanna (Meghan McCall) are servants to Count Almaviva (Matt Osifchin) and his wife, the Countess (Angela Marchese). The Count lusts after Susanna and she tells Figaro. So, you get the picture. All of the singers are, in my opinion, ready for the Met. I’ve heard baritone Jackson before and he’s commanding even in the comic role of Figaro. I know and have interviewed on my TV show, “P.M. Arlington,” local soprano Meghan McCall—along with Dr. Souvorova. McCall’s beautiful voice and acting ability give credibility to her role as Susanna. In Act II she sings to Figaro, “Venite, inginocchiatevi” (Come kneel down in front of me) and in Act IV, another bell-like rendition, “Deh vieni, non tardar” (Beloved don’t delay)—just two of her many songs. On alternate dates, other talented singers take on the lead roles. Kathleen McGhee is the costumer (she’s done over 40 productions), Mio Hasegawa, costume design and Molly McClain, set design. The Bel Cantanti Opera Company can be reached at 301-438-8682.
The sheer youthful ebullience of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" too often gets short shrift. Yes, it is a genial and knowing portrait of human frailties and foibles. But Mozart was just 30 when he wrote it (in a mere six weeks), and all its major characters are young, so the work is particularly well suited to Bel Cantanti's informal staging and its troupe of talented young singers.
Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova rotates cast members, giving different performers star turns as Figaro, Susanna, and Count and Countess Almaviva. On Saturday night at the Austrian Embassy, Danielle Talamantes was a standout as a sassy, pert and very pretty Susanna, with spot-on comic timing. She was as adept with facial and vocal expressions as she was with the lute in Act 2. Kwang Kyu Lee's rich bass-baritone gave Figaro more weight and bite than usual. David Krohn was a snide, self-centered Count, always in heat or high dudgeon. Amanda Gosier was introspective and genuinely moving as the Countess. Jessica Renfro offered utterly charming naivete as Cherubino. Jeffrey Tarr and Alexandra Christoforakis were deliciously overdressed and overdone as Bartolo and Marcellina, and Alexander Kugler was suitably oily as Don Basilio and Don Curzio. Souvorova, playing piano and harpsichord, kept the pacing fleet, abetted by a fine string quartet. The minimalist sets made up in cleverness what they lacked in elegance. Repeat performances, at 7:30 p.m., will be at the embassy tomorrow and the Randolph Road Theatre in Silver Spring on Dec. 22 and 29.
Katerina Souvorova's ambitious Bel Cantanti Opera Company, a troupe of young up-and-coming singers, regularly programs two operas and two concerts of arias a year. Now it has found what it hopes will be a permanent home in the Randolph Road Theatre (the old Round House Theatre) in the Wheaton area, a nice, funky, small stage that should be ideal for the scale of its productions. It was there that the company opened its fourth season Friday, with a "Salut à la France," a concert of arias and ensembles from French operas.
All 13 company members got a chance to sing in the choruses from Bizet's Carmen and Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment (an opera that might not be French in origin, but certainly is in spirit). As might be expected, these are singers in varied stages of vocal development. Baritone Bryan Jackson projected enormous energy and considerable beauty in everything he touched, and was as compelling as Mephistopheles in "Le veau d'or" from Gounod's Faust as he was contemplative in his duet "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles with tenor Kevin Perry (who handled several ensemble assignments with assurance). Soprano Keesun Kwon gave a knock-out reading of the "Bell Song" from Delibes' Lakme; mezzo Jessica Renfro's Carmen in the "Habanera" aria was convincingly steamy and seductive; and soprano Rhea Walker lavished a warm sound and fine diction on Salome's aria "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Herodiade.
Mezzo Abigail Wright delivered an aria from Ravel's "L'Heure Espagnole" with delicious flair backed up by splendid diction, and soprano Meghan McCall handled the "Chacun le sait" aria from "La Fille du Regiment" with humor and energy. Randa Rouweyha, Emily Ezzie and Cynthia Farbman were at their best in well-rehearsed ensemble numbers, and baritone David Krohn and mezzos Lingling Peng and Alexandra Christoforakis handled their assignments with determination and serious purpose. Souvorova accompanied all that with considerable flair on a small upright piano and managed to sound almost orchestral.
Vocal teacher Katerina Souvorova knows opera isn’t for everybody. Still, she claims, once the ‘‘virus” strikes, there’s no cure. And while this singing coach is clearly cuckoo about hearing anyone on the verge of a vibrato, she also knows opera tickets don’t come cheap. Since moving to America in 1996, the Belarus-born Souvorova has made it her business to produce reasonably priced opera. She took it a step further in 2003 by creating Bel Cantanti Opera, which, since its beginning has presented operas nonstop. Its newest, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s final operatic masterpiece ‘‘Iolanta,” will be performed on the afternoon of Sunday, May 7, in Washington Baptist Church in Bethesda.
Since the one-act opera hasn’t been staged in the U.S. since the 1920s, Souvorova calls this event a rare opportunity for opera fans. She also contends that ‘‘Iolanta” can be a perfect primer for the novice. It isn’t dense or long — like a Richard Wagner opera — nor is it wrought with depressing allegories. ‘‘It’s a happy story. No blood, death. Iolanta gets married,” Souvorova declares, speaking from her Germantown home.
The composer’s brother Modest Tchaikovsky wrote the libretto, hatching the plot from the Henrik Hertz play ‘‘Kong Renés Datter” (King René’s Daughter). The story is simple: To say the least, the king is a bit overprotective of his beautiful daughter, the blind princess Iolanta, who somehow doesn’t even know she has this disability. All hell breaks loose when somebody spills the beans, but since this big mouth-nobody, ‘‘fills her [Iolanta’s] heart with desire,” and this princess is daddy’s little girl, everyone is singing an ardent aria in the end. While the production is performed in Russian, English subtitles are projected on a screen. And ‘‘Iolanta” is fully staged, with costumes and scenery, and accompanied by a pianist and a string quartet.
Coming to America. American opera is very different from what you would find in Belarus. In this former Soviet Union republic, opera is made for the masses; people from every economic class and age group regularly attend. And what’s more, with a staff of hundreds of singers and production crew members, a wide range of operatic productions are performed daily.
So when Souvorova’s physicist husband secured a job in Charlotte, N.C., she was ‘‘shocked” by opera’s limited audience. She quickly learned Americans pay homage to cinema, not ‘‘Carmen.” Knowing that the U.S. might become her permanent home – her husband was part of a Russian⁄American collaboration that brought doctors and scientist together – she decided it was time to spread the word. But first, Souvorova needed to learn English; she attended language classes at the local community college. Soon, she began wandering over to the music department where she made friends with the students. With a true western-entrepreneur spirit, she hung up her vocal coach shingle. With a gaggle of young tenors and sopranos looking for work, she began producing operas for her fledgling Carnegie Hall stars. Some five years later, her husband’s job moved the family to this region. She was impressed with the Kennedy Center’s operatic productions, but stunned by the steep ticket prices. What’s more, after teaching voice, first at George Mason University and now at The Catholic University, Souvorova saw too many young singers with few safe places to begin their vocal careers. It seemed only natural to create Bel Cantanti.
In its short life, this nonprofit squeaks along on ticket sales. With many filled houses, Bel Cantanti needs a permanent home. And if that happens, Souvorova hopes that little by little, her love of opera will become contagious.
Opera Bel Cantanti is doing all the things that a small local opera company should. I was sad to miss their winter production, Rachmaninov's Aleko (reprised from the previous summer), because it is an opera that I may never have another chance to hear live (although OBC may bring it back). That is what local and collegiate opera companies should do, operas that bigger mainstream companies are just too staid and predictable to touch: Maryland Opera Studio's choice of Cimarosa this year and Gluck's Armide and Conrad Susa's Transformations next year, Catholic University's premiere of The Furies, Washington Concert Opera's performance of Rossini's Tancredi, Opera Lafayette's Sacchini and Idomeneo, Ignoti Dei's upcoming La Didone. The 13,000th production of Don Giovanni, Magic Flute or Il Trovatore usually bores me to tears, unless it has truly superlative singing (unlikely for this kind of company) or an unusual directorial concept.
The latest opera OBC has brought to Washington is the charming one-act Iolanta by Tchaikovsky. Imagine characters based on 15th-century French history, set in a fictional story by Danish playwright Henrik Hertz, transformed into a Russian opera by Tchaikovsky on a libretto by his brother Modest. I missed the initial run of performances last month (reviewed by the Washington Post), but I was there at the Lyceum in Alexandria on Wednesday night for the first of two encore performances. The production is simple but elegant enough: bare-bones set pieces and props take back seat in the budget to fairly ornate and colorful costumes. Although Opera Bel Cantanti sometimes uses a string quartet to approximate at least part of the orchestration (as in their production of La Fille du Régiment last fall), here it was only the artistic director, Katerina Souvorova (an accompanist with Baltimore Opera and a talented pianist) at the piano. She was joined very briefly by one of the company's trustees -- Kathleen McGhee, who also designed the costumes -- in a minimal part on the harp.
Souvorova finds talented singers, many of whom are currently enrolled in or have recently finished graduate studies in the area or are already singing professionally, in one of the region's opera choruses, for example. Soprano Emily Ezzie was a sweet Iolanta, both vocally and dramatically, convincing as the pretty girl sheltered from the knowledge of her own blindness by her protective father, King René. The chorus of supporting women has some pretty and sometimes complicated music, as well: round-voiced mezzo-soprano Lingling Peng stood out as Iolanta's nurse, Marta, as did the charming Jessica Renfro as her friend Laura.
Bass Vladimir Ekzarkhov looked the part of King René and had enough heft, although the top notes of the part were not in line on this evening and there was a noticeable wobble. Tenor Kevin Perry brought a strong and sure tenor voice to the role of Vaudémont, the knight who falls in love with Iolanta. Baritones Matt Osifchin (Robert) and Bryan Jackson (Ibn-Khakia) were equally strong although not as subtle. My only complaint about the singing in this performance was that it could have been scaled better to the scope of the venue. We could hear everything quite clearly without some of the shouting, perhaps driven by Souvorova's athletic and molto martellato approach to much of the score. Let's just say that at times I was glad to be in the back row.
The best part of the experience was the discovery of this mostly unknown opera, premiered at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater during the December holidays in 1892, where it was paired with his fluffy little ballet about a girl who gets a nutcracker for Christmas. The latter, although charming, is performed far too often, while the former practically vanished. Iolanta is not even in the Mariinsky's current repertory. Tchaikovsky worked on both of these twilight stage works after returning from a happy and successful conducting tour of the United States: he was given the subject for the ballet, which he never liked, but he chose the story of Iolanta. It has some lovely parts, including Iolanta's bittersweet opening aria ("Are eyes only for crying?"), King René's prayer, the sweet duet of Vaudémont and Iolanta as he realizes that she cannot tell which color rose she is handing him (happily a less loud passage for my ears), and the finale as Iolanta sees her enclosed garden for the first time and the principals praise God for his mercy ("Slava," absolutely required in Russian opera).
One of the charms of an evening with Opera Bel Cantanti was revealed when the artistic director herself came down the stairs with a container of salsa that had been forgotten when the modest reception was set up. Katerina Souverova may have baked the cookies, too, which were excellent. By my count, there is a handful of Tchaikovsky operas I have yet to hear. (Garth Trinkl will never forgive me if I do not mention Szymanowski's Dionysian opera King Roger, too.) I fully hope to get to know them thanks to Opera Bel Cantanti over the next several years.
The fairy-tale libretto -- by the composer's brother, Modest, from a Danish play by Henrik Hertz -- is silly even by opera's modest standards of believability. Princess Iolanta, blind from birth, is kept ignorant of her condition by her well-meaning father. A knight, Vaudemont, falls in love with her and makes her desire sight by speaking of God's wonders. Because she wants to see, she gains both vision and love.
This trifle requires at least nine strong singers -- one reason it is rarely staged. Bel Cantanti Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova cast every role admirably and some outstandingly. Emily Ezzie was a lovely Iolanta: youthful, naive and gentle. Vladimir Ekzarkhov's strong, resonant voice brought real power to the role of King Rene -- and pathos, when he asked God, "If I have sinned, why does my poor angel suffer?" Noah Stewart sang Vaudemont with full, rich intensity. His duet with Ezzie was the performance's emotional high point. Matt Osifchin's tenor was lighter, his acting more impulsive as Robert, Iolanta's original betrothed, who now loves another. Bryan Jackson was a cool-thinking, crafty Ibn-Khakia, the Moorish physician who figures out how Iolanta can learn to see. Lesser roles were equally fine: Lingling Peng as Marta, Iolanta's nurse; David Morris as the gatekeeper, Bertrand; and Anastasia Robinson and Jessica Renfro as Iolanta's friends.
The brunt of the music was borne by Souvorova, a pianist of considerable talent and endurance. A string quartet intensified the sound. The set was well designed, and the actors used every inch of it.
There really was a King Rene -- he rode with Joan of Arc to Orleans -- and he did have a daughter named Yolande. But there is no truth in "Iolanta" -- only beauty.
A star almost blinding in intensity catches the attention of a crippled shepherd boy, who urges his mother to leave their dismal hut to view the gleaming light. With that theme, Gian Carlo Menotti spun an opera -- both music and libretto -- that has won a permanent place as family fare in the Christmas music season. "Amahl and the Night Visitors" is a partly autobiographical tale based on Menotti's personal miracle -- unexpected recovery from lameness in his youth. On Saturday, Bel Cantanti Opera presented the 1951 one-act at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Mount Pleasant.
Formed in 2003, Bel Cantanti has remarkably accomplished young soloists. For Amahl, Menotti specified a boy soprano, but Jennifer Weingartner's clear, focused voice filled the bill nicely. As his mother, soprano Kathleen Sasnett has Wagnerian depth gilded with a mezzo-ish tint. Issachah Savage, VaShawn McIlwain and Daryl Ott made up the trio of kings, combining regal bearing with strength to match. Page Rick Latterell gave luster to his role.
Everyone's acting was impressive. And Bel Cantanti devises clever and detailed staging, costuming and sets on a shoestring budget. As usual, director Katerina Souvorova provided superlative piano accompaniment of orchestral dimensions. There were a few rough spots. If the awkward dancing was meant to be spontaneous, it wasn't obvious. And the unaccompanied chorus of shepherds and villagers needed instrumental support -- a recorder, perhaps -- for intonation problems. The performance repeats at various locations in the District, Maryland and Virginia: Dec. 16, 17, 18, 23; and Jan. 6 and 7.
Bel Cantanti Opera gave a capital performance of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" Saturday at Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda. The opera is anything but Grimm -- it's a sweetened-up version of the creepy fairy tale unearthed and rewritten by the Grimm brothers Wilhelm and Jacob. After Humperdinck's sister Adelheid asked him to tone down the plot when he created a children's opera on the tale of two tots lost in a gloomy forest, the result was a work larded with Wagnerian leitmotifs and folkish tunes but with the witch's scariness downgraded and the addition of a warmhearted Father, Sandman, Dew Fairy, other fairies and Angels.The singing (in English) was excellent and -- despite limited space -- reinforced by inventive and tasteful sets, staging and costumes. As a backdrop, the libretto and colorful images were projected on a screen behind the church chancel. Soprano Meghan McCall (Gretel) and mezzo Andrea Hill (Hansel) combined radiant, full-bodied voices with some tricky but smoothly and effectively executed stage antics. Witch Kathleen Sasnett sang with consistent resonance, her singing interspersed with expert cackling. Baritone Bryan Jackson and mezzo Michelle Rice made believably concerned parents, while Stacey Mastrian as the Dew Fairy and Adrienne Neal as the Sandman provided ample support. General and artistic director Katerina Souvorova lent power and character to the piano accompaniment.The opera will be repeated Friday and Nov. 5 and 6 at various venues.
Katerina Souvorova relates a conversation she had with opera legend Anastasios “Taso” Vrenios about what it takes to be an opera singer. They agreed: “You have to have a beautiful voice, of course-but it’s not enough to have a good voice. You have to have the emotion and be able to translate what you feel… You have to be pretty transparent,” says Katerina. “When you sing, I can tell who you are-I can tell what your character is, I can tell what kind of person you are-because you’re sharing the most intimate emotions inside of you. When you’re on stage you’re very, very exposed-and not everybody can do that… It’s very difficult to open yourself and dissolve into the music-it’s rare but incredibly important.” Katerina and Vrenios also believe that a singer must have an “interesting” stage presence: “You can hear a great voice and not pay attention… It’s the people who grab you!” A singer must be dependable, always prepared because “someone might call you and say, ‘Virginia Opera need someone to sing Carmen. Are you ready? Can you do it tomorrow?”
Born and raised in Moscow, Katerina holds both, Master’s and Doctorate degrees in music as well as an Artist Diploma in piano performance from the Belarus Conservatory. She served as principal opera coach and pianist for more than 10 years at the Bolshoi Opera of Belarus. Now a resident of the United States, Katerina is an opera coach, a pianist, a professor of Russian Diction at the Catholic University of America in Washington and a vocal coach at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester. She is also the founder and general and artistic director of Bel Cantanti Opera, a company that brings together young voices from across the map to perform the most difficult of operas.Bel Cantanti started as a company for young singers. About two years ago, Katerina’s voice students at George Mason University had just finished Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte under her direction. With two months left in the semester, she still had lot of singers who wanted to sing. So she created a recital opportunity for them called Opera, Opera, Opera, and they still wanted to sing. Thus was formed Bel Cantanti, which in December 2003 held its first fully staged production of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors at a church in Leesburg,.Bel Cantanti, translated loosely from the Italian as “beautiful singers,” attracts a steady parade of auditioners from nearby Catholic University and Shenandoah Conservatory, as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina.
“I started auditioning people because there are a lot of young singers around,” says Katerina. “They graduate from colleges and if they don’t find their way into The Young Artists Program or an agency, they are stuck… They teach to get some money but they still have these wonderful voices, I usually coach a lot of people, so I know the best singers around, and after they heard we exist, they started [seeking us out].” Bel Cantanti provides an opportunity for dedicated singers to learn the roles and to include those roles on their resumes. “There are a lot of little opera companies around, but I dare to say that we are different because we work very hard-ad the level is rising very, very fast,” Says Katerina. “We started with Amahl and the Night Visitors-right after that we performed Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore- then Verdi’s Rigoletto, which is a huge, big drama. And after that we did Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in Russian, which was a very big undertaking. We had wonderful singers and wonderful reviews.” Following a recent performance of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, a French diplomat in attendance invited Bel Cantanti to reprise the production at the French Embassy. Katerina’s troupe of twenty-something singers (who perform in French, Italian, Russian and German) possess the passion, dedication and commitment required by Bel Cantanti. Most of the singers work full-time jobs and practice in the evenings. Unlike the large, established opera companies that perform about five operas a year, Bel Cantanti perform pretty much nonstop, a regimen that goes back to Katerina’s roots. In Russia, as in many parts of Europe, opera was very much integrated into the culture of everyday life. Katerina hopes that opera will become an essential part of people’s lives here in the United States. “We want people to understand that opera is affordable,” she says noting that Bel Cantanti performs Humperdinck’ Hansel and Gretel in English, often at Halloween, so children and parents can enjoy it as a family, At he same time they want to make performances affordable for senior citizens-the company is planning an upcoming performance t Leisure World in Silver Spring.
Bel Cantanti has an exciting repertoire for the remainder of 2005 and continuing into the new year. Christmas favorite Amahl and the Night Visitors runs throughout December 2005 and January 2006. Also in January, the company celebrates the 250th birthday o Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with Viva La Mozart, a gala recital of excerpts from some of Mozart’s well-known operas, including Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Die Zauberflote, Cosi Fan Tutte, Idomieo and Don Giovanni. “This will be a wonderful, wonderful show with the string quartet [featuring] Russian musicians from the Kennedy Center Opera House,” says Katerina. “Our first violin is concertmaster of the Kennedy Center Orchestra.” Viva La Mozart will be presented in several locations throughout the Washington metropolitan area-including Mclean. And in February and May, Bel Cantanti will perform two Russian operas, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, which ha been performed in the States “once in 1926 when Rachmaninoff was here and once when Bolshoi Opera came from Russia-so it’s actually the second American showing of it.” In May, it’s Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.
Katerina cites numerous singers, several of them who have been with her since the beginning, for their passion, dedication and hard work: Lucas Tannous, tenor, Megan McCall, soprano, Cristina Nassif, soprano, and Cynthia Farbman, soprano who travels from North Carolina to participate. And she credits costume designer Kathleen McGhee and her stage directors. For details on upcoming performances visit www.belcantanti.com
In recent years, smaller companies like the Washington Concert Opera have steadied their financial footing and improved the quality and quantity of their offerings. And now, it's even possible for entirely new organizations to pop up and find a niche in D.C.'s operatic firmament.
A case in point is a new, small company called Bel Cantanti. Riffing on the Italian term for beautiful singing, Bel Cantanti, founded in 2003 and helmed by General and Artistic Director Katerina Souvorova, offers fully-costumed operas featuring young, up-and-coming singers in local venues backed by budget scenery and small instrumental ensembles. Its latest effort, Gaetano Donizetti's charming "La Fille du Regiment" ("The Daughter of the Regiment") is both a pleasant surprise and an affordable opportunity for suburban audiences to become better acquainted with one of opera's most user-friendly tunefests. Although Donizetti is best known for his Italian operas, his popular "La Fille du Regiment" was composed in Paris to a French libretto. Light, frothy, and amusing, it prefigures similar entertainments cranked out in ensuing decades by Johann Strauss the younger, Jacques Offenbach and others -- works eventually dubbed "operetta."
"La Fille" is a young woman named Marie, a foundling adopted as an infant by the 21st French Regiment. She's now their collective daughter, or "vivandiere" -- a mascot who also at times serves as nurse, confidante and cook. She might even take up a rifle now and then. Marie turns out to have royal blood, which complicates her intention to marry a young peasant she's fallen in love with during a tour of Switzerland. But things all work out, providing plenty of excuses for patriotic choruses and dazzling, show-off arias. Backed by an able mixed chorus and a string quartet with an added French horn, military percussion, and Miss Souvorova on piano, Bel Cantanti's rotating cast gave a rousing performance of this classic during their opening weekend. (The lead roles of Marie, Tonio, and the Marquise are sung by different singers on different evenings.)
During Sunday's performance at Bethesda's Christ Lutheran Church, soprano Elizabeth Kluegel starred as Marie and did a standout job. Obviously having a good time chumming around with the boys, she showed a remarkably supple coloratura instrument, capable of navigating Donizetti's numerous high-note challenges without apparent strain. The evening's hero, Tonio (sung by tenor Aurelio Dominguez), had a fine voice, although it lacked refinement when he sang at full volume in his upper range. Nonetheless, he negotiated his ornamentation nicely. In smaller roles, mezzo Andrea Hill (Marquise of Berkenfield) and baritone Matthew Osifchin were funny and charming, and the accompanying ensemble was highly professional and well-suited to the opera's light texture -- save for some unfortunate excursions early on by the French horn.
Bel Cantanti's "La Fille" is an absolute delight, an enjoyable evening for opera aficionados and the perfect opportunity for timid newbies to be surprised at just how much fun light opera can be.
The future of opera as fun, rather than spectacle or museum piece, lies with such groups as Katerina Souvorova's Bel Cantanti Opera. The company, now in its second season, does Gaetano Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" with minimal scenery, homemade costumes, sloppy surtitles, much-reduced instrumentation (mostly piano and string quartet) -- and enough vocal enthusiasm to make up for everything else.
Written in 1839, while Donizetti lived in Paris, the opera is French in libretto and sensibility but Italian in structure. Its focus is Marie, a supposed orphan abandoned on a battlefield and adopted by an entire regiment. Marie turns out to be of noble, if illegitimate, birth, and she eventually escapes a loveless marriage for station to be united with the soldier she loves.
The opera is an old-fashioned celebration of martial glory ( Vive la guerre! Vive la mort! ) and of France: It ends with a rousing chorus of Salut a la France. Think of it as a fairy tale and you'll have fun, as the company certainly did Sunday night at Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda. Elizabeth Kluegel's bright, slightly brassy voice fit Marie's character and was outstanding in the opera's funniest scene: a drawing-room ditty that keeps degenerating into the regiment's song. As Tonio, her lover, Aurelio Dominguez lacked polish but bravely essayed nine high C's in 90 seconds in "Ah! mes amis." Matthew Osifchin was brusquely good-hearted as Sergeant Sulpice, and Andrea Hill gave the Marquise de Berkenfield real character.
The performance will be repeated Friday at St. George's Episcopal Church, Arlington, then return to Christ Lutheran Church on Sunday. It will be performed Sept. 30 at the Levine School in Washington as a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Sergei Rachmaninoff's youthful opera "Aleko" had a rare performance Friday at Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda. The season finale for the energetic, imaginative Bel Cantanti opera company, it was only the third American production of Aleko, and the show was a revelation to many in the audience.
Rachmaninoff composed "Aleko" as a graduation requirement at the Moscow Conservatory when he was only 19. Though it gives no hint that the composer would become one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, it shows his melodic skills were already well developed. For much of its length, before it breaks into a flurry of violent action near the end, the one-act opera is theatrically rather subdued, but it presents well-defined characters and a clear plot. The story is simple: A man (Aleko) has left mainstream society, joined a band of Gypsies and fallen in love with a Gypsy woman, Zemphira. When she takes a young lover, he kills them both.
The music is sometimes reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, but the work it most resembles overall is "Cavalleria Rusticana," with its rustic setting, violent conclusion and even the presence of an intermezzo (beautifully played by pianist and artistic director Katerina Souvorova) before the violence.
Bryan Jackson brings a sonorous, subtly shaded baritone to the role of Aleko. Alice Dillon is an attractive, provocative Zemphira, and Issachah Savage characterizes her young lover with a golden tenor. Vladimir Ekzarkhov and Michelle T. Rice solidly fill supporting roles and dominate the series of Russian arias and songs that fill out the program after intermission: Ekzarkhov in splendidly presented arias from Borodin's "Prince Igor" and Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" as well as Glinka's "Midnight Parade" and Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea"; Rice in an aria from Tchaikovsky's "Pique Dame."
Different songs and arias will be sung in repeat performances June 26 and July 1.
The Bel Cantanti opera company had its usual energy and sparkle in Sunday night's performance of "The Barber of Seville" at Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda. But something new had been added. Katerina Souvorova's piano, which had served as the orchestra in previous productions, was supported by a string quartet -- a very skilled string quartet led by Oleg Rylatko, the excellent concertmaster of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
This is a significant advance for the spectacularly low-budget company. Souvorova solo was very good; Souvorova plus four strings has more variety of texture and subtlety of nuance. And the cadences of Rossini's music often have a feeling of bowed strings about them.
Still, the voices are what opera is all about, and in this "Barber of Seville," as in previous Bel Cantanti productions, the voices were aptly cast, thoroughly rehearsed, rich and expressive in tone and used with wit and intelligence. This is a sweeping statement, but it applies to the whole cast, from Barbera Dooley, Lucas Tannous and Bryan Jackson in the leading parts of Rosina, Almaviva and Figaro to the supporting roles of the maid Berta (Pamela Butler), Fiorello (Chris Jones) and an officer (John Turner). Between these extremes, the cast's deeper voices supplied the element of villainy: Robert Ritter as a nervous, bumbling Bartolo and Daryl Ott (Basilio), whose properly explosive "La Calunnia" was a highlight of the show.
There will be three repeat performances: Friday, Sunday and May 6 at various locations.
Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin" is as fine a piece of work as anything by Verdi, Wagner or Puccini, but it is not performed in the United States nearly as often as its quality deserves. That fact adds a special interest to the Bel Cantanti production now running in various Washington churches. It's a formidable assignment for a company as small and financially handicapped as Bel Cantanti. "Onegin" is grand opera, with 10 vocal soloists, many show-stopping arias and two big party scenes, separated by a duel and distinguished by richly orchestrated instrumental showpieces --a waltz and a polonaise -- that have found a place in the symphonic repertoire.
And, most challenging of all for an American company, it is sung in Russian. One has to make allowances for this production, but considering the context it must be called a triumph. There will be two more performances, Friday and Sunday evenings at Westmoreland Congregational Church, and they should play to capacity audiences.
The chief strength of this production is the singing. Cristina Nassif is a striking Tatiana, with a stage presence and acting talent as powerful as her voice. She is well-matched with the cool, aristocratic Onegin of Adam Juran. Jose Sacin is an impetuous Lenski, Andrea Hill a bubbly, carefree Olga. The quality of casting extends to the smallest roles. Pamela Butler brings a special sparkle to the role of the maid Filipyevna, John Wiggins is quaintly comic as Triquet, and Vladimir Ekzarkhov is deeply moving as Gremin.
The budget problems are reflected in scenery that is essentially suggested, not shown, and in the costuming of the chorus (though the soloists' costumes are just right). In Acts 2 and 3, the chorus members are formally clad partygoers, but they also appear in their party clothes in Act 1 -- where they are field hands bringing in the harvest. The orchestra is a piano, but this is hardly a handicap when the pianist is the company's highly skilled director, Katerina Souvorova. She omitted the elaborate Act 3 polonaise (a pity, considering what she might have done with it).
One of the most attractive aspects of this production is a large screen on which are projected a variety of relevant graphics and an unusually satisfying set of surtitles.
Last week, I was trapped by a come-on. An interesting new opera company, Bel Cantanti, presented a gala recital in the Lyceum, an auditorium in Alexandria, Virginia dating back to the origins of the American republic. The first half of the program was devoted to a preview of the company's next production, a Barber of Seville scheduled for April, and I came away from that performance more eager to see this Barber production than any other musical event in the near future. This was exactly the result the company had intended.
It will be the young company's second fully staged production. I have seen a Rigoletto and an Amahl and the Night Visitors, that were performed in local churches with costumes and stage action but no scenery. For both of these productions, as for last week's gala, the orchestral music was provided by Katerina Souvorova, a pianist and vocal coach of extraordinary talent, who founded the company in 2003. She accompanies the singers with a skill and eloquence, a variety of accent and color that can make an audience quickly ignore the absence of an orchestra.
As often as I have enjoyed rich costumes, elaborate scenery, spectacular stage effects and a virtuoso orchestra in opera productions from Vienna to San Francisco, I keep coming back to the idea that the voices are what matter the most, the reason that people choose to go to an opera rather than a spoken play that is likely to come across with more clarity and logic.
Next to voices, I would put acting skills: the ability to portray character and tell a story while singing, usually, in a foreign language. In both departments, last week's recital showed, Opera Bel Cantanti is well supplied. Many of the roles are double, or triple-cast for the three scheduled performances before the full April production, and I only saw the first cast, but it reaffirmed my long-held belief that we are living in a golden age of opera. And my hope that opera, specifically opera in America, has a promising future. Bel Cantanti is not prominent among America's thousand-plus opera companies, and perhaps never will be. But it makes the special magic of opera happen.
Most of the singers were quite young, evidently near the beginning of promising careers. An exception (appropriately for the role in which he was cast) was Daryll Ott as the unscrupulous, scheming music teacher, Don Basilio. His stage presence was commanding and his big showcase aria, "La Calunnia." came across (in the words of the the aria, like "un colpo di canone" (a cannon shot). In the role of Figaro, Bryan Jackson combined a voice both rich and agile with a strong personality. Cristina Nassif was a Rosina capable of spectacular coloratura acrobatics but also intelligent and adept at trickery.
The cast worked together smoothly, although this was only a recital of excerpts, doing full justice to the opera's status as a major ensemble effort. I do not know how Katerina Souvorova manages to find such promising performers and rehearse them to such a high level of excellence; it is probably not done by money, because available evidence indicates that the company has practically none. We can credit her with a high level of skill, both in music and in human relations, and an even higher level of determination. In more than a half-century of observing opera companies, I have seen again and again the power of dedicated women in making them successful. Perhaps that is why, observing Souvorova in action, I keep being reminded of my first close operatic acquaintance, Sarah Caldwell.
The Church of St. Stephen, at 16th and Newton St., NW, is hardly an ideal venue for opera; the lighting is dim, and the reverberation becomes a problem above mezzo-forte. So why would anyone go there to see a performance of "Rigoletto"?
There can be several reasons. Perhaps for Verdi's great melodies and tragically ironic plot, or because the price is reasonable. But primarily one goes to such a performance in hopes of seeing and hearing future stars-promising young singers near the start of their careers. That hope was justified, Sunday night in St. Stephen's, when Opera Bel Cantanti gave a semi-staged (costumes and stage action but no scenery) performance of "Rigoletto."
The cast was well-coached and, with one exception, sang well, from Nemeh Azzam in the title role down to Alice Dillon in the walk-on role of a page. But three showed particular promise. Rigoletto is a challenging role, musically, theatrically and psychologically, but Azzam had it completely mastered. He projected the personality, outwardly obnoxious and inwardly conflicted, in fine detail. His long Act II monologue, climaxing with the "Cortigiani" outburst, had strong impact, and he sang throughout with rich tone and fine control.
Also notable were the Gilda of Cynthia Farbman, particularly an exquisite "Caro Nome," and the Duke, sung by Lucas Tannous with a fine swagger in "La donna e mobile." An exception to the general vocal excellence was Mike Malovic (Sparafucile), who sounded like he had a serious throat infection.
The orchestral music was supplied, at the piano, by the company's founder and director, Katerina Souvorova, a pianist of international stature and a vocal coach whose credentials include the Bolshoi Opera and several American universities. Her company is still new, small and, no doubt, financially challenged, but this production showed a serious, focused orientation, high ambition and significant potential.