by Michael Caruso

Philadelphia was alive with singing this past weekend. Opera Philadelphia opened its production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in the Academy of Music Friday night, April 28. The following evening, April 29, the Academy of Vocal Arts opened its mounting of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” And Sunday afternoon, April 30, the Adult Choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, sang Choral Evensong.

This particular Evensong was not only the final such offering of the season but its repertoire was chosen as a dress rehearsal for the Choir’s weeklong residency in July at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the “Mother Church of the Anglican Communion.” Both the “Magnificat” and the “Nunc Dimittis” were taken from Sir Herbert Howells’ “Evening Service for the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster.” Also by Howells was the Anthem at the Offertory, “Thee Will I Love.”

The usual tendency among Anglican composers of music for Choral Evensong is to set the “Magnificat” more exuberantly and the “Nunc Dimittis” more reflectively in response to their respective texts. For the former, the Virgin Mary exclaimed, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” For the latter, St. Simeon responded, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant departest in peace, according to thy word.”

Yet Howells, one of England’s finest composers of liturgical sacred choral music, chose to cast his “Magnificat” in a somber vein and his “Nunc Dimittis” is a more celebratory light. Under music director Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway’s inspired hand, the Choir sang the first with abiding grace and the second with intense ardor.

No less well sung was “Thee Will I Love.” It’s a powerful score of dark dissonances and sweeping counterpoint, and it was sung with glistening tone and eloquent phrasing.

But it was the work heard at the opening of the service that was its most finely crafted and most immaculately sung. William Byrd (1540-1623) lived and composed at the very time that Queen Elizabeth I made the final break with Rome and the Catholic Church and established through the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith the Protestant Church of England. Byrd’s talent was so overwhelming that the queen not only permitted him to be openly Roman Catholic but even to compose music for private celebrations of the Mass and other liturgies.

“Laudibus in Sanctis” (“Celebrate the Lord Most High”) is a stunning example of late Renaissance polyphony – simpler than the high-flying style of England’s other peerless genius of the period, Thomas Tallis, but still profoundly complex in its unbroken flow of thematic development. Fritsch-Hemenway and the Choir gave it a supple and sumptuous reading.

MOZART DOUBLE BILL

Both “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute” came late in Mozart’s career. The former was composed and premiered in 1786 while the latter was premiered in 1791, the very year of its composer’s death. Both are voiced in Mozart’s mature style of vocal and instrumental writing, but while both reveal his unique genius as a composer of opera, each couldn’t be more unlike the other if Mozart had deliberately set out to make them opposites.

Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto for “The Marriage of Figaro” was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ play of the same title. Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” comes from the trilogy from which “Figaro” is drawn. Oddly enough, “Barber” comes first in the series, even though it was composed after Mozart’s opus. The whole trio was banned because of its revolutionary conceit that the still-powerful feudal aristocracy was both morally and intellectually inferior to the people they ruled. Certainly Figaro, a servant, is superior on all counts to Count Almaviva, his lord and master.

Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for “Magic Flute” is an original hodgepodge of Enlightenment gobbledygook about the darkness of superstition, represented by the Queen of the Night, finally overwhelmed by the light of intellect, personified by Sarastro and his Temple of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of whom Cleopatra was among the last high priestesses.

Mozart set da Ponte’s Italian libretto with melodies that flow across the bar lines, leading the way to the “bel canto” style of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti in the following century. His more declamatory setting of Schikaneder’s German text set the stage for the German romantic style of Weber, Wagner and Strauss.

The productions these masterpieces received were equally divergent in style. Although Opera Philadelphia has earned a reputation for commissioning new works and interpreting older parts of the repertoire in startlingly new ways, its “Marriage of Figaro” was straight-down-the-line traditional. It was the Academy of Vocal Arts that imposed an updated “concept” on “Magic Flute” by casting it as the fevered dream of a 19th century scholar. While Opera Philadelphia’s cast boasted only one truly world-class vocalist, virtually the entire cast at AVA sounded as though they are all destined to stride the stages of all the great opera houses in the world.

Stage director Stephen Lawless placed “Figaro” is its proper time and place: late 17th century Spain when hereditary aristocrats had literally life-and-death control over the servants who populated their fiefdoms. He used this specificity to delineate the truly revolutionary notion that a servant was a finer human being than his lord. Leslie Travers’ set and costume design caught the flavor of the epoch through movable flats and stunning costumes. Thomas Hase’s sensitive lighting differentiated exterior action from interior reflection. Corrado Rovaris’ conducting was a hit-and-miss affair: vibrant in the big numbers but painfully slow in the recitatives.

Baritone Brandon Cedel, an alumnus of the Curtis Institute of Music, was a towering Figaro: wily and sexy, cunning and macho. Soprano Ying Fang was a saucy Susanna, the bride Figaro would fight to the death to protect from the lecherous advances of Count Almaviva. Baritone John Chest was spellbinding as Almaviva, corrupted by the absolute power he wields.

Soprano Layla Claire projected the production’s finest voice as the Countess Rosina, once the Count’s beloved but now cast aside in favor of her own lady’s maid. Her glowing tones filled the Academy of Music to its rafters. Mezzo Cecilia Hall was rambunctious in the trouser role of the page Cherubino, mezzo Lucy Schaufer was an explosive Marcellina, and bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi was hopelessly pompous as Bartolo.

Over at AVA, stage director Jeffrey Buchman placed “The Magic Flute” in a 19th century library. The young fellow who becomes Prince Tamino falls asleep while reading a book entitled “The Magic Flute” and dreams the whole silly narrative while asleep on a sofa. I suppose that that sort of notion helps explain away most of its nonsense and some of its misogyny, but like throwing out the baby with the bathwater, what’s left of whatever meaning it might have had for a contemporary audience? Not much. And what of conductor Christofer Macatsoris’ decision to replace “live” singing and playing with a recorded performance for two of the “bigger” moments toward the end of the second act? Not to my liking, either.

Fortunately, AVA’s opening night cast was superb, none more so than soprano Meryl Dominguez as the terrifying Queen of the Night. Her coloratura was so spot-on — even the four “High Fs” above “High C” — that she brought back memories of the late Roberta Peters singing the role at the Metropolitan Opera. Tenor Jonas Hacker sang heroically as Tamino, the prince who saves the kidnapped Pamina.

Soprano Alexandra Nowakowski’s acting was a trifle stilted as Pamina, but she sang with both power and lyricism. Baritone Anthony Whitson-Martini was hysterically engaging as Papageno, the bird catcher, and mezzo Rebecca Gulinello was a fine Papagena, his perfect match. Bass Anthony Schneider was a commanding Sarastro, the high priest of Enlightenment, and tenor Piotr Buszewski was a sinister but not altogether unsympathetic Monostatos.

“The Marriage of Figaro” continues through May 7; visit www.operaphila.org. “The Magic Flute” continues through May 9; visit www.avaopera.org.

Contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

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