by Michael Caruso

For the second year in a row, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill marked All Souls Day (Nov. 2) with a “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.” Last year’s celebration included within the service a splendid performance by the Choir of St. Paul’s Church under Zachary Fritsch-Hemenway’s direction of Maurice Durufle’s “Requiem Mass.” It was the finest rendition of that daunting score I’ve ever heard from a local choir. For this year’s service, held Sunday, Nov. 6, the musical choice was the “Requiem Mass” of Gabriel Faure. Its interpretation surpassed on every count last year’s accomplishment.

The secret to an expert rendition of Faure’s “Requiem Mass” is successfully highlighting the medieval plainsong foundation upon which the melodic themes of the choral writing are based without slighting the late romantic chromatic yet modal harmonies Faure created to surround them. Faure, like many other composers in the post-Wagnerian world of classical music, had come to feel that the use of chromatic dissonance had so weakened the major/minor tonal system that another language needed to be utilized for new music to be written.

While the Germans dove into the abyss of 12-tone serial composition, Faure and many others chose to revive the seven modes used by the composers of the Gregorian chants. His “Requiem Mass” is probably the fullest and most memorable example of how well that discipline worked.

Unlike the operatic excesses of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Manzoni Requiem Mass” or the symphonic complexities of Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” Faure’s “Requiem Mass” is an intimate expression of both grief at the loss of a loved one and hope for his or her salvation unto eternal life. Most of its movements are quiet dynamically and lush yet simple harmonically. Its rhythms are closely aligned to its traditional Latin text, perhaps never more beautifully set to music that it is here, and its thematic development never hinders a moving appreciation of those words of promise.

Sunday afternoon’s performance, heard by about 300 people, was notable for its broad sweep of dynamics, immaculate holding to pure tuning, flawless blend and balance between sections of the choir, clear yet unaffected diction and eloquent phrasing of its modal melodies.

Under Fritsch-Hemenway’s direction and accompanied by organ scholar Joseph Russell, all sections of the choir performed superbly, but to my ears the sopranos achieved a level of excellence above and beyond all the rest, not by aping the transparent tones of boy trebles but by offering ethereal colors that floated out over the congregation and soared upwards to heaven. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the exemplary solo singing of baritone Frank Phillips and soprano Diana Whitener. And here’s a suggestion for next year: the “Requiem Mass” by Ildebrando Pizzetti.

AVA’s ‘RIGOLETTO’

The Academy of Vocal Arts Opera Theater opened its 2016-17 season of fully staged operas with a stunning production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” Saturday evening, Nov. 5, in its own Warden Theater in Center City. The mounting brilliantly brought together the legendary talents of conductor Christofer Macatsoris and stage director Tito Capobianco alongside the emerging talents of an impressive roster of young singers currently studying at AVA, the nation’s only full-scholarship school devoted to the art of singing. The production continues through Nov. 20.

“Rigoletto” is the first of the three operas — the others being “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” — Verdi composed between 1851 and 1853 that brought to a magnificent conclusion his “middle period” of composition. Premiered in 1851 at Venice’s storied Teatro La Fenice, the greatest of Italy’s opera composers set “Rigoletto” to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on Victor Hugo’s play, “Le roi s’amuse” (literally, The king amuses himself).

Its taut narrative, bristling rhythms, sharp-edged scoring and overall mood of insidious evil mark a complete break with the idealized absurdities that characterized so much of Italian opera written in the first half of the 19th century. In its unvarnished view of humanity at its worst and the fiercely dramatic mode of its telling, “Rigoletto,” even when staged in its time and place of the 16th century court of the virtually independent Duchy of Mantua in Northern Italy, is one of the first “modern” operas ever composed.

There’s no “romanticizing” anything in “Rigoletto.” It is far harsher in its judgments and far less accommodating in its drama than either “Il Trovatore” or “La Traviata.” If it has a parallel in the canon of works composed by Verdi’s successor, Giacomo Puccini, it would be “Tosca,” famously described by the incomparable Maria Callas as a “shabby little shocker.”

The triumph of Tito Capobianco’s stage direction was not so much its success at making the Warden Theater’s tiny stage seem sufficiently expansive to accommodate the unfolding disaster of the libretto but its ability to free even the most stock characters on the stage — the Duke’s notoriously thuggish courtiers, for instance — from mindless stereotypes and reveal them as individuals caught in the wicked web of the Duke’s lascivious and insatiable lusts.

Thus Rigoletto, a hunchback and cruel court jester, is seen as both the instigator of the opera’s catastrophe and its secondary victim. His daughter Gilda is revealed as both the primary victim of her father’s hatred for a world that has hated him but also as a young woman who takes her fate into her own hands by sacrificing herself for the Duke who has dishonored and abandoned her. Even the heartless Duke, saved by Gilda from being murdered by a hired assassin, is shown to be a slave to his own immoral impulses and is sure to meet a violent end sooner or later.

Responding to Capobianco’s direction, AVA music director Christofer Macatsoris elicited intensely passionate playing from the AVA Opera Orchestra. He balanced the lyrical beauty of Geoffrey Deemer’s exquisite second act oboe solo against bracing colors from the strings to delineate in sound a corner of the world fatally infected by the evil of its ruler.

In the title role, baritone Jared Bybee gave a superb performance Saturday evening. An underlying sadness and self-loathing formed the foundation of the character’s biting taunts while his singing throbbed with energetic intensity voiced through swelling tones. Soprano Vanessa Vasquez was an innocent yet steely Gilda, unaware of the dangers of falling in love with a handsome stranger who turns out to be a poisonous serpent yet up to the challenges of determining her own fate.

Her singing was secure and sumptuous in tone and expressive and flexible in phrasing. Marco Cammarota’s tenor voice is still developing. There were moments of undisguised vocal stress as the Duke, but he carried off the role convincingly.

Basses Anthony Schneider and Andre Courville were marvelous, respectively, as the assassin Sparafucile and Monterone, the father who hurls the curse on Rigoletto that sets the action in motion. Mezzo Alejandra Gomez was a sultry yet considerate Maddalena.

And what can one say about Val Starr’s costumes other than that she was channeling Orry-Kelly at the Warner Bros. studio in 1939 for Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.”

Saturday’s opening night was a gala fundraiser that brought in $50,000 for AVA. For more information, call 215-735-1685 or visit www.avaopera.org.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net.

...