by MICHAEL CARUSO
Venissa Santi brought her distinctive blend of Latin and jazz to Pastorius Park last Wednesday evening, July 11. Santi and her band drew an audience that packed to overflowing the park’s natural amphitheater and held the crowd mesmerized by her vocal artistry.
From the very first note Santi sang, it was apparent that hers is a highly trained voice. Her pitch was always right on the mark, no matter how florid the vocal line became as she developed, expanded and deepened its emotional expressivity. Her breath control was absolute, allowing her to sing out notes superbly aligned with the phrases of the text. Her tone was seamlessly and creamily projected from top to bottom and from soft to loud.
Her rendition of the concert’s opening selection, “Tender Shepherd,” was a model of sensuous calypso and eloquent jazz beautifully combined in equal measure. The instrumental accompaniment — trumpet, keyboard, acoustic upright bass and percussion — was impressively supple and vibrant. Tempi changed on a dime from sultry to energetic and then back again. Songs like “If Ever We Meet Again,” “Habanera,” “Traveling Light” and “Bird” were interpreted and performed perfectly.
The Delaware Valley Opera Company opened its production of Vincenzo Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” (The Sleepwalker) Saturday night in the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center on Wissahickon Avenue in East Falls. With music direction by Michele Scanlon and stage direction by Sandra Hartman, the presentation is the finest effort by DVOC over the several decades during which I’ve reviewed its presentations.
“La Sonnambula” is one of the most innocently charming operas in the standard “bel canto” (beautiful singing) repertoire. Rather than the typical mistaken identity ruse so common in romantic literature, “La Sonnambula” relies on the notion of sleepwalking for its brand of misinformation and false accusation. And in that seminal detail which differentiates comedy from tragedy in virtually every Italian opera, everything turns out just fine for everyone concerned by the end of the score.
Stage director Sandra Hartman wisely placed the opera’s action in its originally intended time and place. The audience isn’t asked to believe that this “Sonnambula” is taking place in the Roaring ‘20s — a favorite epoch for directors desperate to prove their originality even if it’s now been done many, many times. Hartman has proven her own intelligence by assuming the same for her audience.
Most of the action takes place in the open square of a small Italian village, and all the villagers are appropriately dressed in costumes that delineate their social status in the town. Hartman elicited convincing characterizations from her cast as opposed to exaggerated caricatures, achieving a legitimate comedy overlaying a touching love story.
Music director and piano accompanist Michele Scanlon, a University of Delaware alumna who has worked at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts since 1985, offered expert conducting from the piano. Her playing was sensitively voiced to approximate the sound of the original orchestral score.
Her cast was the most consistently accomplished I’ve ever encountered at DVOC, headed by Roxborough’s married couple, Elizabeth and Timothy Oliver as the romantic leads Amina and Elvino. Elizabeth’s light, agile soprano effectively delivered Amina’s unaffected eloquence, and Timothy managed Elvino’s treacherously high tessitura with admirable ease.
Tracy Sturgis was excellent as the wily Lisa. Her coloratura singing was splendid. Baritone Robert Davidson sang securely and acted sympathetically as the hapless Alessio. Mezzo Emily Byrne was a pillar of support as Teresa, Amina’s adoptive mother, and bass-baritone Milo Morris nearly stole the show as Rodolfo, the returning count who saves Amina’s reputation and marriage to Elvino.
And congratulations to DVOC for its superb supertitles, which enabled the impressively large and appreciative audience to understand every word that was sung. “La Sonnambula” continues July 18 and 21 at 8 p.m. More information at www.dvopera.org.