Opera groups: Rossini wants you to post
production photos on the Internet!

The stars must have aligned, and they must favor Rossini. All three of Philadelphia’s opera groups have presented his work this fall. I loved Opera Philadelphia’s goofy Barber of Seville, but as it happens the other two opera companies are schools. Of course, the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute are two of the very best training grounds for singers in the country. But when I saw AVA’s L’italiana in Algeri and Curtis Opera Theater’s La scala di seta this week, I was frequently reminded just how difficult this music is. Approximatura, wildly out of tune and/or strained high notes, and white-knuckle Rossini crescendos galore–not the kind of thing you usually hear from students of these extremely distinguished institutions. I’m sure these were educational experiences for the singers, you have to start somewhere, but as an audience member it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I’m going to accentuate the positive here; if I leave some major role out that means I thought the singer wasn’t ready for prime time yet. (AVA, by the way, insists their “resident artists” are professionals, but based on this performance they are all very much works in progress.)

Let’s start with the awesome, and not-Rossini, part: Curtis followed the short La scala di seta with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Granted, Gianni Schicchi is a hard act to top with anything, but this one was the most uproarious hour of opera you could imagine. Together with the Curtis’s crack orchestra (conducted by Lio Kuokman), it was loud, energetic, and dramatically alive. Stephanie Havey’s production is a cartoonish farce, taking place in a bank vault, the floor littered with coins and various signs of wealth all around. (The sets are by Brandon McNeel and look great. How Curtis manages to consistently surpass the production values of many regional-level opera companies beats me. It also baffles me as to how I am unable to find any photos of these excellent designs!) The production was updated as well as aggressively localized, with the surtitles moving Signa to Jersey, mentioning cheesesteak, giving poor Buoso a casino in Atlantic City, making Schicchi a Democrat from the suburbs, and so on. It’s cute, funny, and, together with the manic committment of the cast, really works.

The cast included several singers who really stood out: Sean Michael Plumb was a youthful Gianni Schicchi with the look and apparent guilelessness of Andy Dwyer, only smarter, and sang with a medium-sized, exceptionally musical baritone, really making something special of his brief monologues. Evan LeRoy Johnson as Rinuccio has a sweet and ringing lyric tenor, and Kirsten MacKinnon’s smoky lyric soprano sounded intriguing as Ciesca and I wish she had sang more. (Note: most roles are double-cast and I saw the November 21 performance.)

Curtis preceded this with Rossini’s La scala di seta, which was new to me. The set gave us a steampunk confection of old scientific instruments, gears, and a mixture of present and historic images. I couldn’t figure out a logic behind this, but it looked nifty. More importantly, Havey and the cast kept a good balance between comedy and character development. Seemingly minor characters like servant Germano (sung by Dogukan Kuran) became big comic hams, failed suitor Blansac a dandy short on self-awareness, and Giulia a popular girl who knows how to get what she wants. Singing-wise, none of the cast members were totally consistent, though all had some strong moments. Johnathan McCullogh as Blansac seemed the most suited to Rossini, as well as showing excellent comic timing.

The Academy of Vocal Arts’s production of L’italiana in Algeri was less happy. AVA has a very distinguished record of producing famous singers–relatively recent grads include Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, and Stephen Costello–but despite some great voices their shows are rarely as polished as Curtis’s. They trade in the kind of über-traditional productions which dare you to suggest that opera is about anything other than la voce, and tend to produce exclusively warhorse operas. The repertoire makes sense for the students, but I can’t help but wonder about the stogy stagings. Dorothy Danner’s schtick-heavy production trapped the cast in convention and cliché, and none of them appeared to connect to the drama and to each other in the organic way the (mostly less experienced) Curtis singers did.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh, because at this performance circumstances conspired against everyone. After their main run in Philadelphia, AVA brings their productions out for a single evening on the Main Line, which was the performance I attended. Heating problems necessitated a last minute change of venue from the Haverford School to Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall. Goodhart is possessed neither of orchestra pit nor surtitles but is endowed with a cavernous cathedral ceiling which did nothing for solo voices. It also positioned the orchestra behind the singers, and lacks a Maestrocam-type monitor–meaning the singers had no eye contact with the conductor, hence the aforementioned white-knuckle Rossini crescendos. For the audience, the loss of the surtitles was the gravest blow. This is a funny opera, but most people were barely following the plot and no one was laughing at the jokes. This took a lot of air out of the proceedings, and I wished they’d simply postponed the opera until they could perform it properly. I liked that the orchestra went to the length to find a mezzaluna, however I wished its sounds had been as impressive as its looks. It loomed over the orchestra yet produced the sound of a few decorative jingle bells hung on a door.

I doubt this weird venue showed the singers at the best. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Hannah Ludwig’s performance in the title role. She has a deep, chocolatey mezzo and a likeable stage presence. Michael Adams was impressive as Taddeo, and André Courville, as Mustafa, showed an excellent lyric bass, unfortunately combined with a rather stiff stage manner. (AVA is also mostly double-cast; I saw the November 18 performance.)

Winter in Philadelphia will be less Rossinian: AVA performs La bohème in February and Curtis does Ariadne auf Naxos in a co-production with Opera Philadelphia. Curtis will finish their year with The Rake’s Progress, and AVA with, in warhorse fashion, Faust.

Rossini, L’italiana in Algeri. Academy of Vocal Arts, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Maw College, November 18, 2014
La scala di seta and Puccini, Gianni Schicchi. Curtis Opera Theater at
the Prince Music Theater, Philadelphi, November 21, 2014.

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