by Michael Caruso
Longtime Germantown resident Richard Raub conducted the Academy of Vocal Arts Opera Theater’s mounting of Gioachino Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri” (The Italian Girl in Algiers) opening night Saturday, Nov. 8. The production was seen and heard in AVA’s own Warden Theater at 1920 Spruce St. in the Rittenhouse Square section of center city.
Given its world premiere in Venice May 22, 1813, “L’italiana” has maintained its hold on the opera-going public not so much on the strength of Angelo Anelli’s libretto, which is patently absurd from the first word to the last and doesn’t offer a single believable character in its entire cast, but on the sheer beauty of the music the 21-year-old Rossini composed for it. And not merely as a result of his superb writing for individual voices. Rossini’s ability to write for large-scale vocal ensembles is the equal of anything Giuseppe Verdi ever composed, and his orchestration (vocal and instrumental) wasn’t equaled in Italian opera until the arrival of Giacomo Puccini in the 1890s.
As a result of so much contrapuntal vocal and instrumental complexity, successfully conducting a Rossini opera is no mean feat. Maintaining ensemble within the orchestra and between the singers and the players, setting the proper balances so that the orchestra isn’t reduced to mere accompaniment but plays an integral part in the score’s ongoing development without overwhelming the singers onstage, and perhaps most importantly establishing the proper and effective tempi for each individual number so as to keep pace while aiming for the final conclusion of the opera as a whole must all come together efficaciously.
Such was the case under Raub’s energetic yet steadying baton opening night. Each individual singer was able to establish his or her musical/theatrical personality within the context of the admittedly silly libretto, yet each star turn was snugly fit into the fabric of the entire piece.
Saturday night’s cast offered a full roster of individual contributions shining within an ensemble troupe. Mezzo Hannah Ludwig was a delightful Isabella, the “Italian girl” of the title. She sang with powerful projection and agile coloratura, and acted with high spirits perfectly aligned with good nature. Tenor Alasdair Kent was a sensitive yet determined Lindoro, her beloved held hostage by Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers. Bass Andre Courville was comically dastardly as said Bey, and Michael Adams and Jorge Espino rounded out the cast as Taddeo and Haly.
Although stage director Dorothy Danner obviously never heard of the notion of “less is more” – there was enough over-activity on AVA’s tiny space to fill the vast expanses of the Metropolitan Opera’s stage – Val Starr’s costumes were an exotic match for Irene Sharaff’s Oscar-winning costumes for “Cleopatra.”
“L’italiana” continues in the Warden Theater Nov. 12, 14 & 15, the Haverford School’s Centennial Hall Nov. 18, and Central Bucks South High School Nov. 22. Call 215-735-1685 or visit www.avaopera.org.
RECITAL & EVENSONG
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, hosted a Choral Evensong Sunday, Nov. 9, that served to commemorate two events that occurred on that date in history. The first occurred in 324 A.D., when Pope St. Sylvester consecrated the Cathedral Basilica of Christ the Savior (now called St. John Lateran, the Cathedral Church of the Diocese of Rome) as a result of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great having granted permission to build the first public Christian church in the Roman Empire. The second took place in 870 A.D. when the monks of the Abbey of Medehamstde, England, were massacred. During the 16th century under the reign of King Henry VIII, the Abbey was closed and became Peterborough Cathedral. In 1970, the English composer Herbert Howells helped the United Kingdom celebrate that gruesome date by composing “Thee Will I Love,” the anthem sung by St. Paul’s Choir at the Offertory Sunday afternoon.
It’s a remarkable work of tortured harmonies and poignant dissonances beautifully yet not sentimentally resolved. Music director Zachary Hemenway led a performance that caught the turbulent sweep of the difficult early history of the Catholic Church in England and the troubled subsequent history of the Church of England since the 16th century Reformation. The singing was invested with intensity when the score required it and relaxation when that was needed, yet the tone never turned harsh during the former nor did blend and balance falter in the latter.
Hemenway opened Evensong with a stunning rendition of James MacMillan’s unaccompanied “Welcome Jesu.” MacMillan’s music has assumed a prominent place in the contemporary choral music scene as a result of his distinctive tonal personality and sensitive setting of texts. “Welcome Jesu” seems to arrive from far beyond the realm of reality, floating down from on high and making its way into the very soul of the listener through a spirit of peace and joy. St. Paul’s Choir sang it with the technical polish and interpretive integrity of a fully professional ensemble.
Choral settings of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” are traditional parts of Choral Evensong, and Sunday’s selections by Charles Villiers Stanford are exquisite examples of the type. The performance the former received was noteworthy for Diana Whitener’s soaring delivery of the stratospheric soprano solo, originally intended to be sung by a boy treble but here delivered with all the intended clarity and none of the frequent insecurity of projection.
Prior to the start of Evensong, Clara Gerdes presented a short organ recital. Gerdes is a student of Alan Morrison at the Curtis Institute of Music and the organ scholar at the Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul, Philadelphia, working under John Romeri, music director at both the Cathedral and for the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Gerdes’ rendition of Bach’s “Prelude & Fugue in E-flat” revealed a baroque organ within the multitude of registrations available on the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ while her performance of Franck’s “Choral No. 2 in B minor” showed off its orchestral colorations.
Curtis Institute of Music alumna Yuja Wang was the piano soloist with China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (Beijing) Orchestra Friday evening, Nov. 7, in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall. Presented by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which works with the ensemble when it tours China, the concert drew an audience that virtually packed the hall.
The Chinese-born Wang, who came to America specifically to study with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute here in Philadelphia, was heard in Maurice Ravel’s glamorous “Piano Concerto in G major.” Composed in 1930 at the same time Ravel was writing his “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand,” it’s something of an amazing marriage between Mozart and Gershwin. It’s flawlessly structured in the form of a classical piano concerto; yet it speaks in the language of French-inflected Jazz.
As such, it was the perfect vehicle for a stunning display of Wang’s prodigious talents: dazzling digital technique, a broad variety of colors ranging from gossamer pianissimos to volcanic fortissimos, an unaffected command over a slinky coming and going of tempo, and a sultry sense of phrasing that made Wang’s Steinway concert grand piano both sing and declaim.