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WFU Premieres Manuel García's Salon Opera L'isola disabitata

by William Thomas Walker

The second of two performances of Manuel García's L'isola disabitata (The Uninhabited Island) in WFU's Brendle Recital Hall on April 8 was a happy marriage of musicological scholarship and practical vocal pedagogy. I am familiar with Teresa Radomski's work as an opera and oratorio soloist; the focus of her scholarship – the careful transcription of manuscripts and the creation of a performing edition of a salon opera by García – was fascinating. Her splendid program notes place the work in its historical context and recount aspects of her research. She transcribed the score from a complex original manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris) while on research leave. With her brother, musicologist James Radomski, she completed a critical edition of the opera which is being published by A-R Editions, Inc.

Founder of a vocal dynasty, Manuel del Pópulo Vicente García (1775-1832) was a prolific composer, master singing teacher, and one of the greatest tenors of all time. He taught his daughters, Maria Malibran García and Pauline Viardot-García, who became two of the 19th century's greatest divas. Jenny Lind was taught by his son, Manuel Patricio García, and his grandson Gustave (1837-1925) and great-grandson Alberto (1875-1946) had important careers as baritones and teachers. García's five salon operas were designed to be used as teaching vehicles. The one-act works make use of piano accompaniment and feature highly demanding music in "a wide vocal range, with an abundance of scales, arpeggios and trills… that necessitate fine coordination, rhythmic precision and exact intonation." All of these qualities were present in superabundant quantities in the 90-minute performance of L'isola disabitata.

The opera adapts a text by Pietro Metastasio that had been set by a number of composers including Haydn. The setting is a desert island. Thirteen years before the opera's action, Gernando, his wife Constanza, and her infant sister Silvia took rest on the island during a dangerous storm. While the women slept, Gernado was kidnapped by pirates. Sailors from his ship rushed off in pursuit and lost him, and assuming that the whole family had been taken, did not return to the island.. Upon awakening, Constanza assumes that she has been abandoned, like Ariadne on Naxos in the Greek myth. She instills Silvia with her horror and hatred of men..

Supertitle projections gave the full background of the story during the extended Overture, played by pianist Thomas Turnbull. Mozart and Rossini have been credited as major influences on García's style, but most of the time I thought sensed more of Rossini and late Haydn. There is a fleeting resemblance to the opening of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata rippling under one of Constanza's early laments. On first hearing, I failed to detect much blending of the Spanish dance rhythms, vocal style, or tonal colors that were mentioned by Bob Workmon in an April 3 article in the Winston-Salem Journal. It is hard to catch everything during a first hearing of a work.

Radomski assembled a strong cast of current and recent WFU students who are/were double majors and who are supporting themselves and their art in diverse careers. Stage Director James Dodding elicited acting from the small cast that ranged from good to very fine. Soprano Mary Mendenhall brought considerable dramatic weight to the role of the self-tortured Constanza; her seething furry often reminded me of Electra, in Mozart's opera seria Idomeneo. The warm and mellow timbre of tenor Ricardo Gómez, who sang the role of Gernando, was a constant delight and the discovery of the evening. Good tenors are always in short supply, and when you hear someone who rises above the merely serviceable, what joy! Gómez had complete dynamic and expressive control of his voice from the quietest "p" to his truly moving and brilliant high notes. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Castellone created a kind of "goofy" naïve nymph as Silvia, raised with only Constanza's railings against men. Considering her bubbly good nature and how quickly she becomes attracted to Enrico, the first man she sees, it is clear that she was very inattentive during Constanza's hostile indoctrinations. As Gernando's friend Enrico, Christopher Magiera displayed a robust baritone and natural acting talent. Upon first seeing Silvia, "his wild nymph," he moves into action, primping with an ever-so-slight flick of his hand to his coat that captured the essence of the swain. Alli Lawson played with aplomb the role of the infant Silvia, a literal walk-on part and non-speaking role; likewise Bradley Stephenson and Patrick Walsh were two sailors, called upon to look either concerned or earnest. The opera was sung in Italian, and the entire cast projected the words with admirable levels of clarity."

The imaginative lighting was by Jason Lawson. Blackouts served for major changes of scenes within the otherwise uninterrupted action. The supertitles were crisply focused and easy to read. Jeffry Driver designed the sparse set – two large multi-terraced forms suggested rugged terrain, and a smaller form at a doorway suggested a further locale. A huge color photo of the open sea, superimposed with the opera's title, was projected until the overture was played. During this, a long exposition of the background was slowly parceled out. Throughout the opera, the supertitles were projected well above the piano while the space was delimited by a suggestion of palm trees in stenciled outline.

While the tradition of opera seria, with its multiple repeats of stanzas intended to be tastefully ornamented, is very much to my taste, García carries repetition to extremes. His salon operas were composed as extended exercises to hone his students' skills in all aspects of vocal technique. I lost count of how many times each stanza was repeated. The composer would have expected his students to improvise their own embellishments each time they did a repeat and to practice whatever particular skill was being emphasized. They would have learned to master all aspects of ensemble singing from repeating the same text in various combinations - as duets all the way up to blending four different texts in a quartet.

García's L'isola disabitata would be a worthy addition to the repertoire of any school of singing. It emphasizes all the skills of bel canto singing and can be easily staged. For full public performances outside purely teaching functions, judicious pruning of some of the repeats could tighten the work's dramatic focus.

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