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Mozart/Da Ponte, Le Nozze di Figaro, the debut of the Capital Opera Company, Albany

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro

Richard Mazzaferro, founder of the Capital Opera, with Andy Truex and Roza Tulyaganove
Richard Mazzaferro, founder of the Capital Opera, with Andy Truex and Roza Tulyaganova, photo Michael Miller

Lorenzo Da Ponte, libretto
The Capital Opera Company
Friday, April 3, 2009 at 7:30pm in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center, Albany University

Cast
Figaro – Ivan Amaro
Susanna – Alexina Jones
Count Almaviva – Richard Mazzaferro
Countess Almaviva – Roza Tulyaganova
Cherubino – Kara Cornell
Dr. Bartolo – Steve Dahlin
Marcellina – Barbara Eckhaus
Don Basilio – Andy Truex
Antonio – Steve Dahlin
Barbarina – Donna Butler
Don Curzio – Andy Truex
Two ladies – Arla Wilding, Christine Pinckney

Musical Director/Keyboard – Michael Clement
Narrator – Yvonne Perry
The Albany University Chamber Singers, director David Griggs-Janower

with reminsicences of:
Kara Cornell with Michael Clement, piano
University at Albany Recital Hall, Thursday, February 26 at 7pm
La Regata Veneziana by Rossini, selections from Les Nuits d’ete by Berlioz and songs and folk arrangements by Jake Heggie.

and

Two and a Half Russians
Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall, Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 8:30 PM
Julian Gargiulo, Piano
Maria Yefimova, Piano
Roza Tulyaganova, Soprano
Works by Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and others

Last August, tipped off by friends of the always-remarkable Richard Giarusso, I ventured up to Cambridge, New York, to hear him conduct Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte at Hubbard Hall, a nineteenth-century “opera house,” which has seen many vicissitudes, but is now flourishing as a community arts and performance center, thanks to the enthusiasm of its local supporters. It was also the inauguration of a new institution, the Hubbard Hall Opera Company, the brainchild of Alexina Jones. The performance was a delight because of the quality of the young, solidly trained voices, the imaginative use of the hall as a three-dimensional performance space, and the lively acting of an intelligently directed cast, who wanted nothing better than to bring Da Ponte’s human comedy and Mozart’s music to life. Now five of those excellent singers have reassembled to begin another enterprise, The Capital Opera, with a mission “to provide the Capital Region quality experiences in opera and classical vocal music while providing emerging and developing artists a venue for role study and performance in complete operas.  The company seeks out the best talent available while maintaining a strong commitment to include local artists in concerts and productions.” Another one of the Hubbard Hall group, Richard Mazzaferro, is behind this newborn, but ambitious institution. This beginning was suitably ambitious, a production of one of the great masterworks of post-baroque opera, but it was also sensible in focusing on the singers and opting for an acted-out concert performance with keyboard accompaniment. In the future Mr. Mazzaferro promises sets and an excellent orchestra.

Michael Clement, Alexina Jones, Andy Truex, Yvonne Perry, Richard Mazzaferro, Roza Tulyaganova, ,Steve Dahlin, Barbara Eckhaus, Donna Butler, Kara Cornell, and the Albany University Chamber Singers
Michael Clement, Alexina Jones, Andy Truex, Yvonne Perry, Richard Mazzaferro, Roza Tulyaganova, ,Steve Dahlin, Barbara Eckhaus, Donna Butler, Kara Cornell, and the Albany University Chamber Singers, photo Michael Miller

But what an accompaniment! Michael Clement, relying on what is obviously a deep knowledge of the full score, managed to conjure up the illusion of an orchestra through his concentration on important inner voices and cross-accents, which are the soul of an intelligent performance of the work with orchestra—qualities we still treasure in Erich Kleiber’s classic recording. The often complex texture of Mozart’s score is both part of the musical narrative and the ongoing conversation between the singers and the orchestra. In any case, Mr. Clement’s accompaniment was so solid and so energetic that one barely felt the limitations of his instrument, an electronic piano. He used a harpsichord effect for the passages of recitative which were not cut, as well as some string-like sounds to maintain melodic flow or to support significant progressions. He even brought off the great Act II finale. One disadvantage of a piano accompaniment, however, is that even  the most sensitive player tends to bowl ahead, while an orchestra, just from its complexity and inherent inertia, breathes and pauses more naturally. I did think some passages rather fast, for example Cherubino’s “Non so più cosa son…,” not that Kara Cornell was not equal to the tempo or compromised her finely shaped phrasing in any way. Cherubino is a breathless sort of young man anyway.

Even with the cut recitatives, it didn’t strike me as absolutely necessary to support the plot with narration, but the actress Yvonne Perry delivered it with such confidence and expression that the audience was soon won over and enjoyed it for its own sake. (Her diction should put many of her colleagues to shame.) As the evening progressed, it became clear that the narration was intended to be spoken over pantomimes. I should mention here that rehearsal time was extremely limited, since some cast members had to travel up from New York City, and the often very effective narration/dumb show idea could not be developed to its full potential. Under these circumstances some rough spots and jumbled cues were inevitable, but Clement’s strong direction, and the exceptionally fine vocal and dramatic contribution kept passing slips well into the background.

I really was sufficiently impressed by the Hubbard Hall performance that I have made a point of hearing some of the singers in recital over the past months. Roza Tulyaganova’s (the Countess) mastery of style in her performances of traditional Russian songs and songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff at Carnegie Hall  in January was mature and highly developed, as well as her ability to form exquisite phrases with her glowing soprano. (This concert also included Julian Gargiulo’s dynamic performance of Scarlatti sonatas and a truly outstanding and quintessentially Lisztian reading of Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole by Maria Yefimova.) Mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell (Cherubino), who is established in the Albany area as a voice teacher and a very busy performer, gave a splendid recital, also in the University of Albany’s recital hall, which included Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana, selections from Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été, and songs by a personal favorite of hers, Jake Heggie. Ms. Cornell is a singer who can balance impeccable production and phrasing with enthusiastic and colorful dramatics. Rossini and Heggie gave her plenty of scope to act, and her bright, coherently balanced mezzo voice richly expressed the beauty and intimacy of Berlioz’ floating lines. And, thanks to Heggie, she proved herself a top blues singer, as well!

The principle singers in Figaro were universally solid and well-prepared, but their performances all went far beyond that. Kara Cornell’s

Kara Cornell and Donna Butler, photo Michael Miller
Donna Butler and Kara Cornell, photo Michael Miller

intense acting and her apparent sympathy for the vagaries of the adolescent male gave her Cherubino an appealing vulnerability and comic extravagance. Alternately passionate and terrified, he skulks about furniture we could imagine well enough. Throughout Cherubino’s escapades her voice was impeccably focused, bright but rich in color, and her phrasing was a marvel of taste and an intuitive sense of form. Richard Mazzaferro, as the other overheated gentleman in the household, impressively negotiated the Count’s fluctuations between stuffy assertions of his authority—when he actually has no idea of what is actually going on around him—and tender desire. His strong, textured lower register served one side of Almaviva, while his very attractive upper range carried his expressive lines like the plangent upper mid-range of a cello. The extremities of Mr. Mazzaferro’s voice have their own character, which is only for the better, and he managed to integrate them with skill and flair. Roza Tulyaganova sang the Countess with poise and an exquisite sense for the shape of Mozart’s long phrases. Oscillating between aristocratic melancholy and a restrained girlish delight in the intrigue being woven around her errant husband, she immersed herself in her character’s more shadowed, vulnerable moods creating a touching sense of the Countess’ isolation in the midst of all the human antics about and below stairs. The range and color of her voice and her mature musicianship stopped the show for an extended ovation after her  “Dove sono…,” which was both elegant and deeply touching, and graced by the full resonance which extends throughout her range.

Roza Tulyaganova, wearing a gown of her own design, photo Michael Miller
Roza Tulyaganova, with Richard Mazzaferrro and Steve Dahlin, photo Michael Miller

Ivan Amaro, a seasoned baritone, based in New York City, but originally from Peru, had more scope as Figaro than he did as Don Alfonso in Così. He had a sharp sense of Figaro’s situation, as a man relatively comfortable as an upper domestic, as long as his own domesticity is respected and left intact, but, if violated, his hot feelings will drive him to approach (No more!) the limits of decorum. Seemingly betrayed by Susanna, his newly rediscovered parents give him an excuse to regress into helpless puerility. And in this Mr. Amaro creates quite an amusing Figaro. His voice is dark and full, and he uses it to project Figaro’s earthiness and relative simplicity, but his burnished top enabled him to make the most of his more lyric expressions. Alexina Jones sang very attractively as Susanna. Her bright but ample soprano was both supple and strong, and her Susanna, basically a no-nonsense, somewhat cynical sort of girl, circulated on a higher plane in the realm of music.

Ivan Amaro and Alexina Jones, photo Michael Miller
Ivan Amaro and Alexina Jones, photo Michael Miller

Donna Butler, an AU undergraduate, brought a clean, nicely focused voice to Barbarina. The supporting singers each had their moments, and the Albany University Chamber Singers under the direction of David Griggs-Janower sang most stylishly.

Just as at Hubbard Hall back in August, the audience was thrilled with the performance. The fledgling Capital Opera got the basics right—that is, the singers. Richard Mazzaferro has a rich asset in his Hubbard Hall quintet. What’s more they approached Mozart’s masterpiece as a true comedy of character and society. Thanks to this, the rest of the audience, like me, had little trouble filtering out the compromises necessary in this early effort. This was a promising beginning for a regional opera company which is both needed (especially after the demise of the Berkshire Opera Company) and warmly appreciated. And just as Alexina Jones has great things planned for Hubbard Hall this summer, Richard Mazzaferro is working on an impressive step forward for the Capital Opera in Albany.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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