Village Opera Festival Spotlights Community And Emerging Voices

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Errin Brooks as Canio and Marcelina Beucher as Nedda in ‘Pagliacci’ at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice. (Photo courtesy of the Phoenicia Festival of Voice)

PHOENICIA, N.Y. —  This woodsy hamlet in Ulster County spawned its yearly Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice almost by fate: Initially a fund-raiser concert by newly arrived musicians for local playground equipment, it grew into a yearly event and developed after Hurricane Irene devastated the stream-laced community in 2010.

Under co-founders mezzo-soprano Maria Todaro and baritone Louis Otey, “The Voice” has become a major engine of local civic involvement and economic growth. The community participates fully in all aspects of the festival’s functioning, with scholarships, internships, and choral lessons from Todaro in return. Inclusivity — in class, race, and experiential terms — has long been the watchword in assembling both the artistic team and the audience. Sophisticates from New York City and nearby Woodstock show up along with first-time operagoers, including bikers, farmers, and many children.

It’s not Salzburg or Santa Fe, and not meant to be. Some elements — as with any one-off, outdoor performance — can remain approximate, but the energy and intention are palpable and the audience-building model laudable and worth emulation. And there’s always something to reward experienced music lovers. To date, the festival has presented established international artists like the late Rosalind Elias (Mme. Armfeldt), John Osborn (Rodolfo), and Lucas Meachem (Figaro, Marcello); after essaying Ottavio, Barry Banks tried out his Duke of Mantua here before taking it to London. The festival has also featured rising stars including Morris Robinson (Commendatore), Ginger Costa-Jackson (Carmen), and Aaron Blake (Of Mice and Men’s Curly).

Caterina (Kiena Williams), Hanezo  {Rick Agster), Suzel (Clara Lisle), Rabbi David (Suchan Kim), Fritz (Diego Valdez) (Beppe (Madison Marie Mcintosh. partial) and Federico (David Santiago) enjoy the happy resolution in ‘L’amico Fritz.” (Photo by Ricardo Monge)

In 2020 and 2021, due to COVID, the usual ancillary indoor events — world music, jazz, chamber operas, and plays — couldn’t happen. Yet last summer the company delivered North America’s first pandemic-fueled drive-in opera performance with a solidly cast Tosca both onstage and on enormous Jumbotron screens, with all manner of ambitious technical effects, in Kingston, the urban county seat. This summer, Todaro and her “Voice” team — professional staff plus almost 200 volunteers — worked another miracle, with cooperation from the region’s recently unpredictable and swiftly mutable summer weather. Originally, a return to Kingston’s drive-in was foreseen, and Todaro invited two companies as guests: Teatro Grattacielo, Manhattan’s 28-year old verismo specialists, and New York City Opera’s current iteration. However, improving COVID news six weeks ago prompted a return to Phoenicia’s leafy, mountain-shaded Parish Field, offering three intermissionless, 90-minute versions of Italian operas.

Written the year after his volcanic, verismo-defining Cavalleria rusticana, Pietro Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, which premiered at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi in 1891, stands among the composer’s works as the near-complete antithesis of his his ground-breaking masterpiece: a gentle, almost conflict-free bucolic romantic comedy, without knife fights, adultery, or body count. Cavalleria and Fritz share only a rural setting, the later work set in a pre-World War I Alsace, where Protestant and Jewish communities live in harmony. Fritz, a confirmed bachelor landowner entering middle age, grasps, due to his rabbi friend David’s encouragement (maybe kibbitzing is the term of art here), that he loves Suzel, the lovely young daughter of one of his tenant farmers. “La vita è amor!” (“Life is love!”) he proclaims to end his solo aria, and again at evening’s end. And where Cavalleria finishes with an offstage murder, Fritz concludes with an onstage wedding.

Both Mascagni works sparked many international productions; Fritz reached both Covent Garden and the Met within three years, with the original superstar leading pair, tenor Fernando de Lucia and soprano Emma Calvé. But Fritz has retained a repertory place chiefly in Italy. The Met last staged it in 1923; New York City Opera never took it up. San Francisco Opera’s “junior” company gave it in 1976 with Vinson Cole and Leona Mitchell; regional companies with strong Italian focuses have occasionally done it: Newark (with Adriana Maliponte), Sarasota, and New York’s off-Broadway Dicapo Opera Theatre in 2002. Most American listeners know Fritz only from two superb recordings: a 1940 effort slowly led by Mascagni with Ferruccio Tagliavini and Pia Tassinari, and the young Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni under Gianandrea Gavazzeni in 1969.

Phoenicia Festival Theatre (Photo courtesy of the Phoenicia Festival of Voice)

Grattacielo has engaged with Mascagni’s comedy, having previously undertaken his Iris, Guglielmo Ratcliff, and Il piccolo Marat. A full performance of L’amico Fritz under Israel Gursky approaches Nov. 14 at La Mama, for which Aug. 28’s amiable Phoenicia show — trimmed, with the largely student “cover” cast onstage — was a trial run. It’s an opera well worth experiencing. Malena Dayen and Stefanos Koroneos directed soundly, though the compulsive use of falling petals projected (at romantic moments) on the adjacent Jumbotrons garnered diminishing returns, calling attention to the score’s repetitive aspects. Felipe Tristan kept his musical forces (the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra) together, but amplification often distorted the ensemble. (Its quality improved nightly throughout the weekend.)

The young cast all brought the piece the quality it needs most: wistful sincerity. Diego Valdez’s Fritz hadn’t been styled or directed to look or act older than his Suzel, robbing the romantic plot of its generational dimension. His tenor showed range and some potential, but — save for a few relaxed moments in the second act — tight production largely diminished its tonal juice and charm. He and Clara Lisle’s Suzel made a handsome couple. Lisle did well, moving with grace, and showed a pleasing grasp of phrasing and verbal inflection. Her still-developing voice sounded best in its fluid middle register.

Michael Chioldi sang the title role in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.” (Photo by Peter Konkero)

Madison Marie Mcintosh brought an aptly androgynous mezzo-soprano to the “trouser” role of the Romany minstrel Beppe — a gift of a part, with seductive, melancholic music — but again, along with promise she showed technical limitations in pitch and evenness of registers. Among the small roles, rich-toned soprano Kiena Williams‘ Caterina caught the ear. As Rabbi David, the fully professional if still young baritone Suchan Kim’s terrific singing rather eclipsed the Young Artists’ honest work. Kim showed full command of legato and dynamics and projected a strong, burnished sound with seeming effortlessness.

A crowd of 1,200 attended the following night’s “home team” Pagliacci, produced by Todaro with typical flashes of showmanship: Nedda entered on horseback, with her colleagues in a horse-drawn cart. Some spiffy acrobats offered a (Copland-scored) interlude of circus tricks. Throughout, the lines between Leoncavallo’s choral “villagers” and the (already meta-theatrical) opera’s actual audience remained usefully blurred. Plus, the strolling players (Nedda/Colombina Marcelina Beucher, Tonio/Taddeo Troy Cook and Beppe/Arlecchino Ziwen Xiang) proved uncommonly adept at commedia movement and attitudes.

The Met’s current Mingo in Porgy and Bess, Errin Brooks immediately established — as not all Canios can — the commanding personality of a popular entertainer; this made the ensuing evidence of a violent temper the more chilling. His rough-hewn tenor sounded best at full tilt; “Vesti la giubba” — the tune even newbies knew — hit the mark strongly, but “No, Pagliaccio non son” needed firmer line.

Beucher looked and acted Nedda to the hilt, though sometimes tending to address the audience rather than her colleagues. Uneven vocalism allowed for some well-placed soft high notes; few realize how tough a sing this part is. It was a fine weekend for baritones. The experienced, stylish Cook made a good, idiomatic Tonio without the “traditional” vocal heft. Matthew Gamble lent Silvio an impressive instrument and dramatic commitment. The incisive Xiang made “O Colombina” a welcome moment of charm. David Wroe’s orchestral forces could sounded scrappy, but his pacing sustained the needed tension. Dare we admit cutting scores has its plusses? I didn’t miss the overfamiliar Trovatore Soldier’s Chorus at Glimmerglass, nor the villagers’ contrived Bell Chorus here. The crowd response was deliriously positive.

That energy carried over to Aug. 29’s less-well attended and less spectacular but more musically finished New York City Opera-potted Rigoletto. Constantine Orbelian, potentially a major addition to the company, made his debut leading a very reduced orchestra and piano securely and idiomatically through the score’s major scenes. The edition, sagely staged and designed by general director Michael Capasso with minimal but telling sets and fine traditional costumes from stock, featured neither chorus nor comprimarios — just the five leading roles, plus a rather-too-omnipresent actor narrating the story as Monterone’s Ghost. As drama, Rigoletto loses something without the court’s interaction, but for what it was, it was well conceived and very securely performed. Actor Bill van Horn spoke well, and his archaized narration (he used the word “fustian,” which suitably characterized his text imbued with much alliteration) proved helpful to newbies, if occasionally spelling out what the subtitled excerpts made perfectly clear.

Brandie Sutton brought a ‘bright, exciting lyric soprano’ to the role of Gilda.

Capasso and Orbelian cast strongly. Like Troy Cook, Michael Chioldi boasts a long, commendable lyric baritone career and knows his way around Verdian lines. In this miked setting, he could access Rigoletto’s heavy-lifting moments well enough. He and Brandie Sutton’s appealingly girlish Gilda correctly made their duets the emotional centers of the work. Sutton’s bright, exciting lyric soprano projected better through the storm scene than the usual chirpy coloratura, and she managed neat trills and a thrilling high D-flat to end “Addio, addio, speranza ed anima,” if slightly hardening on other interpolations.

As the Duke, Won Whi Choi, if less illuminating as a stage figure, showed a really fine high tenor and fearlessness in its use. He captured an Italianate sound but didn’t need the post-Gigli mannerisms such as glottal catches. Kevin Short, starting a touch brusquely, soon projected a fearsome Sparafucile, rocking the low F, and Lisa Chavez’s dusky-toned mezzo-soprano served Maddalena well. This strong performance will be repeated, and streamed free, at Bryant Park’s Upper Terrace at 7 p.m. Sept. 3.

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