The Capitol Opera Raleigh (COR) has come a long way since its inaugural production of La bohéme a couple of years ago. On Thursday evening it presented, in partnership with Meredith College, the second and third of the three Puccini one-act operas composed during W.W.I and known together as Il trittico. These follow the scheme of the Parisian Grand Guignol (Horror Theater) - Il Tabarro, a horrific episode; Suor Angelica, a sentimental tragedy; and Gianni Schicchi, a farce. The three were premiered in New York in 1918.
COR's production confirms the fact that opera, grand or otherwise (COR being "otherwise") is alive and well both in the Triangle and throughout the country. There are many works whose effectiveness does not depend on elaborate sets or costumes - or even world-class voices. It is important, however, that presenters not over-extend their resources and that audiences adjust their expectations.
Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) was cast primarily by members of the Meredith College staff and students, while Gianni Schicchi by staff members from other universities and colleges, various choirs and churches in the area. Both were sung in English; in light of the fact that by-and-large the diction was not very clear, it probably would have been better had they been sung in Italian with projected super-titles. This would have been especially valuable in Gianni Schicchi , where the rapid-fire comic dialogue makes the text particularly important.
Suor Angelica is the story of a daughter of a noble Florentine family who had a child out of wedlock and was forced into a convent. After seven years trying to live with and atone for her sordid past, her aunt, the Princess appears to obtain Angelica's signature on a legal document. After berating Angelica for the sin she committed, she informs her that her son had died two years ago. When the Princess leaves, the distraught Angelica, the convent's herbalist, concocts a death potion, which she drinks. She prays to the Virgin that she may not die in mortal sin, and as if in answer sees a vision of the Virgin leading a child towards her - and dies. It's The Sound of Music turned upside down and inside out, united in sickly sentimentality.
Soprano Stephanie Dillard de Jong's voice was sweet and nuanced enough for the role of Angelica. Her acting, particularly in the final scene where she takes the poison and sees the vision before her death, was quite powerful. Mezzo-soprano Sally Thomas, as the abbess, had the voice and calm demeanor of a mother figure, and contralto Jane Dillard was more wooden than malignant as the Princess, Angelica's aunt. With everyone costumed identically, it was virtually impossible to match up the names of the other cast members with their roles in the convent. Suffice it to say that the ensemble singing - of which there is quite a bit in this prayerful community - was most effective.
Gianni Schicchi was another kettle of fish. Talk about snatching triumph from the jaws of defeat, Gianni Schicchi was a historical figure in twelfth century Florence and a permanent resident of Dante's Inferno , only one level from the bottom among the fraudulent impersonators, for the little caper memorialized 800 years later by Puccini. When Buoso Donati, a rich Florentine, has died leaving all his money to a monastery, his "grieving" family is incensed. Rinuccio, Buoso's young cousin, suggests bringing in Gianni Schicchi, the father of his beloved Lauretta, who has a genius for solving such dilemmas. Seeing that no one in the community knows that Buoso has died, Schicchi has the family hide the corpse while he calls in a notary and witnesses to write a new will. While he doles out a tidbit to each member of Buoso's family, he wills himself the Donati mansion chasing the family out as soon as the notary leaves. Schicchi then gives over the house to the lovers as Lauretta's dowry.
Baritone David Melnik was superb in the title role, combining a fine voice with a comic flair. He also had the best diction of the lot. Equally loony was Buoso's large family, headed by Olive McKrell as Zita, the only one with reasonable diction. Summer Karagiozov did a creditable job with the opera's one famous aria, "O mio babbino caro," but John Cashwell as Rinuccio sounded forced and frequently raspy. We had no problem with casting untrained singers in the bit comic roles of Amantio di Nicolao, the Notary and Spinelloccio, the Physician; their off-key lines just made them goofier. But Jim Kelly as the departed Buoso Donati was absolutely deadly.
A few general comments: In Meredith's Jones Auditorium, where there is no orchestra pit, it is difficult for singers to project over even a reduced band. Musical director Lisa Fredenburgh tried valiantly to keep her players in check, but balance between orchestra and less-than-world-class singers is a problem calling for constant scrutiny on the part of director, vocal coaches and conductor.
Then there's the issue of language referred to above. Opera in English works only if it promotes better comprehension on the part of the audience. If not, stay in the original language with super-titles. We know that, they're an additional expense for a shoestring budget, but funding for this accommodation might be something that would appeal to a donor who wants to focus his/her gift.
COR will repeat their program on Saturday evening, October 30 at 7:30.