Sunday, December 2, 2012

Three Singers, a Piano, and a Peacock: Replenished Repertoire

On Saturday evening I had the opportunity to go to the National Opera Center for the first time (it's lovely!) to hear an evening of staged opera scenes. The concept behind Replenished Repertoire, brainchild of soprano Allegra Durante, is a simple one, but challenging in execution: to use a small number of singers in staging a wide variety of scenes from across the operatic repertoire. The singers get experience and a chance to show off their versatility, the audience gets a smorgasbord, some unfamiliar pieces get an airing; everybody wins.

The artists themselves--Durante, mezzo Hayden DeWitt, bass Nathan Baer, and pianist Aaron Butler--were responsible for the dynamic stagings, which successfully kept the evening's transitions smooth, while marking the differences in characterization and dramatic tone between the scenes. Most of the latter was accomplished musically, but costumes and a few signal props were used cleverly: a dagger, a fan, the silver rose, the above-mentioned peacock. Choosing the first and final encounters of Octavian and Sophie for the evening's bookends was a move which I, of course, applaud. How better to gain an audience's sympathy than with the breathless, tentative elation of the first... and how better to close an evening than with the breathless, awed ecstasy of the second? In between came soliloquies, confrontations, and amorous interludes. The former consisted of Inez' aria from I Due Figaro for Durante, in which she demonstrated the vocal agility, and the flouncing and pouting, which are the hallmarks of her fach; Mephistopheles' sneering "Vous qui faites l'endormie" for Baer, in which he demonstrated fine legato, and fine sneering, if less-than-fine French; and Nicklausse's not-quite-sneering "Une poupée aux yeux d'émail" for DeWitt, in which she demonstrated clever phrasing and appropriate mezzo swagger.

Predictably enough, two of the evening's confrontations took place between the soprano and the bass: the scene between Raimondo and Lucia from Act II of Lucia di Lammermoor (in which Raimondo is the worst priest ever) and the tense "social visit" of Olin Blitch to Susannah, from Carlisle Floyd's opera of the same name (in which Olin Blitch gives Raimondo some competition.) In these performances, the former lacked the steadily escalating emotional pressure of the latter. Durante made Susannah openly angry, even shrill in her own defense, an interesting departure from more usual portrayals of saintly victimhood. Baer did a very fine job as the tormented Blitch, making his aria ("I'm a lonely man, Susannah") a hard-wrung confession of human vulnerability, addressing her as an intellectual equal and spiritual peer, rather than as one of the congregants whom he so successfully manipulates. The third confrontation was the most famous and the most challenging: the trio from Rigoletto in which Maddalena pleads with her brother for the Duke's life, while Gilda listens aghast. The timing and chemistry of the singers' interactions were well handled. In part aided by fine diction, the women came across as stronger characters than Sparafucile. Although Durante sometimes struggled with intonation over the course of the evening, she sang here with secure tone and desperate confidence. DeWitt's Maddalena emerged with surprising vividness as a woman humorous and intelligent as well as sensual, darkening her voice to good effect. To see both charm and pragmatism bent to the problem of orchestrating a substitute murder was unsettling and fascinating.

"Se al volto mai ti sento" was given as a somewhat one-sided love scene, but its poignancy was strongly felt. Durante's Vitellia was tense and nervy, clearly outraged at the situation in which she finds herself, and clinging to her outward composure. Contrasting with her constraint was the generous frankness of DeWitt's Sesto, confident in treating with Publio as his social equal, and movingly direct in his declarations of love. "Rammento che t'adoro" was overflowing with a tenderness undaunted by his lover's asperity. The remaining love scenes were taken from Handel's obscure--or at least utterly unknown to me!--Poro, Re dell'Indie. The tempestuous mutual jealousies, recriminations, and vows of devotion between Poro and his lover Cleofide (queen of half the subcontinent; admittedly, "Poro, King of Some of India" would not make a catchy title) were handled with a comic lightness which made them more enjoyable to a modern audience than a straight treatment would have been. Both singers used fine phrasing, and interacted well with each other. DeWitt sang with expressive commitment, and elegant ornamentation; her seriousness of purpose in Poro's rather absurd jealousies was admirable, but also welcome was the visible skepticism and exasperation of Baer as his general and confidante. (Surely the operatic confidantes of romantic protagonists must be far more often exasperated and only half-listening than they are usually allowed to appear.) Both Durante and DeWitt were at their best in the lovely duet in which the lovers are reunited after much languishing. I'll repeat, however, my affirmation that "Ist ein Traum" is a conclusion that's hard to surpass, even without the Straussian orchestra. If "Replenished Repertoire" turns into a continuing series, it should be of interest to those who like their opera excerpts (relatively) unfamiliar.


  1. Excellent coverage of a delightful evening.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, as well as the music. Thanks for stopping by!


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