by Michael Caruso

East Falls’ K. James McDowell, president and artistic director of the Academy of Vocal Arts, introduced the seven students enrolled this academic year in a pair of recitals on Sept. 18 and 19. The performances took place in AVA’s Helen Corning Warden Theater, located in the school’s campus at 1916-20 Spruce St. in Center City. AVA is the only full-scholarship school in America dedicated solely to training singers.

AVA’s 28 students, all post-graduates on the cusp of professional careers, come from all over the world. Nineteen are from the U.S., four from Mexico, two from Asia (Armenia and China), two from Europe (Austria and Serbia), and one from Australia.

Saturday evening’s performance, smartly directed and effectively accompanied by pianist Jose Melendez, revealed the inherent talents of all seven singers as well as the varying degrees of professional polish characterizing the current state of those talents. I was particularly impressed by the singing of mezzo Allegra De Vita in music by Alma Mahler (Gustav’s widow, who lived until 1964), Gioacchino Rossini and Kurt Weill. De Vita handled the different styles of her three selections with ease and conviction and projected her voice powerfully yet without forcing the tone.

AVA will present three fully staged productions this season. Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” will open the season Nov. 7-21. It’s often called the greatest opera ever composed. Montemezzi’s “L’amore dei tre re” is scheduled for Jan. 23 and 26 and Feb. 2. The Puccini double bill of “Gianni Schicchi” and “Le Villi” is set for April 23 to May 14.

“L’amore dei tre re” (The Love of the Three Kings) is the obvious surprise of the season. Montemezzi (1875-1952) is one of those post-Puccini Italian composers whose music fell out of favor due less to its lack of merit than to the hostility leveled against any composer who maintained his faith in the traditional major/minor tonal system. Many influential composers and teachers adopted Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique of composition. It’s only been during the last few decades that such scores as “L’amore dei tre re” have been revisited and rehabilitated. The opera debuted in 1913, and Arturo Toscanini conducted it in Philadelphia in 1915. “L’amore dei tre re” was last heard at the Metropolitan Opera in 1949 and has not been performed professionally in Philadelphia since 1960. It was a favorite vehicle for such legendary superstars as Enrico Caruso (a distant relative of mine) and Licia Albanese.

Speaking of the work, McDowell said, “In my mind, we’re rediscovering a lost treasure – and we’ve gotten a lot of good response to it already. We’re showcasing Metropolitan Opera National Council winner Marina Costa-Jackson along with other terrifically talented young singers. The opera features tour-de-force roles for soprano, tenor, baritone and bass.”

Explaining the Puccini double bill, he added, “Everybody expects to see ‘Schicchi’ with one of the others from ‘Il Trittico’ – ‘Suor Angelica’ or ‘Il tabarro’ – but following our success with ‘Le Villi’ in a concert version 10 years ago we decided it would make a good pairing as well as be something audiences don’t see very often.”

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Lyric Fest will open its 2015-16 season of vocal/instrumental recitals Friday, Oct. 2, at 7:30 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The concert is entitled “La Dolce Vita” (The Sweet or Good Life – incidentally, the title of an acclaimed 1960 film written and directed by Federico Fellini) and will offer a mix of beloved Italian vocal works and lesser-known gems of the repertoire.

Chestnut Hill pianist and Lyric Fest co-founder/co-director Laura Ward noted, “There’s a lot of dramatic flair and fun in the selections. We have Rossini, Puccini and Respighi who not only composed operas but also wrote lighter songs. The program captures the Italian spirit and dramatic flair even if a song doesn’t come from an opera.”

East Falls mezzo and group co-founder/co-director Suzanne DuPlantis added, “’La Dolce Vita’ features one of our favorite vocalists, soprano Jennifer Aylmer, and we’re so lucky to have her back this season. She is such a special singer, a consummate and hilarious artist.” Tenor Eric Rieger and baritone Randall Scarlata will also take part.

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