Friday, November 23, 2007

Singing The Bel Canto Blues

Bel canto works represent a curious part of the operatic repertoire. In many of the operas written by such composers as Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, the lead soprano role has become so steeped in vocal tradition and operatic lore that, whenever a newcomer attempts to put her personal stamp on a character like Norma, Angelina, Adalgisa, Elvira, Adina, Rosina, Lucia or Amina, she finds herself subjected to formidable and often odious comparisons. Many a mad scene has been recorded by sopranos who display spectacular vocal agility (even if their highly-ornamented examples of bel canto bravado sound better in the recording studio than they do in performance).

The hard truth for bel canto fans to acknowledge is that Maria Callas has been dead for more than a decade and, despite the fact that many of her recordings have been re-issued in CD format, the woman once hailed as "La Divina" is not planning to make a comeback. Subsequent champions of the bel canto repertoire (Beverly Sills, Renata Scotto, Montserrat Caballe and Dame Joan Sutherland) have either retired these roles from their repertoire, retired from the stage, or are now entering the final stretches of their long and distinguished careers. Time moves on and, if the bel canto repertoire is to survive, new practitioners must start singing these roles in order to keep these operas alive for the audiences of today and tomorrow.

It's no secret that we live in a society whose basic rule of thumb is "Out with the old and in with the new." While general directors are keen to hire promising young talents with plenty of stamina whose voices are fresh and healthy (and whose fees might be a little more affordable), conservative and traditionally-minded audiences are often reluctant to part with their cherished memories of aging prima donnas or their impressions of how a role should be sung as a result of having listened to countless studio recordings. At two performances I attended earlier this year, the audiences at regional opera companies seemed remarkably free of such operatic inhibitions and perceptual handicaps. I think it's particularly interesting to note why.


Now in its third season, Opera Pacific is drawing record crowds at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. A lavish new production of Bellini's Norma (designed and directed by John Pascoe as a joint venture between Opera Pacific and Michigan Opera Theatre) caused diehard bel canto fans to flock to Southern California in order to attend Dame Joan Sutherland's last performances in one of her signature roles. John Pascoe's costumes and direction, while sensitive to Sutherland's singular needs, occasionally bordered on high camp.

At 62, the aging process has taken a toll on Sutherland's voice and, although Norma has long been one of her greatest roles, she has to work much harder to deliver the goods. The performance I attended evidenced obvious moments of vocal tension where Sutherland's voice was noticeably thinner and less secure than in her previous outings as Bellini's druid priestess. Veteran performer that she is, Dame Joan is well aware of how she sounds and of the increasing limitations on her voice. Her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, guided her carefully through the score so that she could acquit herself as gracefully as possible.

Backstage (after receiving a special presentation from the cast and crew), Sutherland thanked everyone at Opera Pacific for their good wishes while stressing that "This is the first and last time I'll be singing with you." As she complimented the crew on their work, there was obviously no malice intended by her statement (La Stupenda is preparing to ring down the curtain on a long career during which, for more than 30 years, she has continued to make history).

Elsewhere in the cast, Russian basso Georgi Selezneev's Oroveso was loud and hardly subtle; tenor Cesar-Antonio Suarez (who is attempting to make a North American comeback) demonstrated a large voice which still lacks control and tends to sound pinched. Alas, having tripped on his costume and fallen during his entrance, Suarez was in severe pain during the performance I attended (which may have affected his singing).

The big news of this Norma production was the young woman singing Adalgisa. Nova Thomas -- whom I first heard as Rezia in Opera Theatre of St. Louis's Oberon production -- has a huge, seamless voice and, although her facial features bear an uncanny resemblance to Ann Miller, offers a strong dramatic presence onstage. Sutherland and Bonynge have apparently taken the young soprano under their wings and the results are obvious. Thomas's vocal technique is rock solid; her voice is spectacularly colored. In the coming year, this dynamic young woman will be singing Poulenc's Blanche, Mozart's Donna Anna, Verdi's Leonora and Jane Seymour in Donizetti's Anna Bolena in cities around the United States. If you're looking for a thousand points of light, keep your eyes and ears tuned to Nova Thomas.


Mention of Anna Bolena recalls the opening night of a new production of Donizetti's tragedy by the Virginia Opera in mid-January. The Virginia Opera is one of those regional companies where community outreach has been so strong that the opening night of each production becomes a genuine event. Audiences are not only hyped for the show, in such cities, attending the opening night performance is a major social excursion.

On paper, the cast for Virginia Opera's Anna Bolena looked quite strong and, since many people had spoken highly of the soprano who was to sing the title role (Marilyn Mims) I was encouraged to fly to Norfolk for opening night. The performance, however, had some definite problems. Several people in the cast were battling colds, the production had been put together in a painfully short rehearsal period and, although Michael Yeargan's design for Virginia Opera's unit set probably sounded wonderful in theory, moving its portals in and out of position during performance became a clumsy procedure which continually threatened to sabotage the dramatic momentum of Arvin Brown's stage direction.

Donizetti's Anna Bolena is usually perceived to be a "woman's" opera because of the strength of the music written for the title character and her rival, Jane Seymour. However, in one of those curious imbalances which occur during live performances (and which make for operatic horse racing) I found the two lead sopranos in Virginia Opera's Anna Bolena surprisingly under par. Mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell, who was recovering from a flu, seemed over-parted as Jane Seymour (Bunnell was much better cast as the page, Smeton, when I heard her in the Houston Grand Opera's production of Anna Bolena) and soprano Marilyn Mims, despite a large voice, didn't really grab me.

Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Cowdrick shone in her few brief moments as Smeton and William Rhodes blustered his way across the stage as Henry VIII. Although Peter Mark conducted with great gusto, the real star of the evening proved to be an outstanding young tenor named Jorge Lopez-Yanez. This is quite ironic since, knowing that the soprano is going to walk off with the show, tenors usually don't lust after the role of Lord Percy. However, Lopez-Yanez, like Nova Thomas, seems like a fascinating talent to watch. His coloratura technique is strong, he cuts a dashing figure onstage (a rare achievement for a bel canto tenor) and, out of the entire cast, he demonstrated the best diction by far.

Whereas Mims' doomed Anna Bolena left one with the feeling that she did not yet have the role fully under her belt, Lopez-Yanez's Percy was dramatically secure and knew exactly what needed to be sung. To my mind, he acquitted himself admirably and I'll look forward to hearing this young man perform again soon.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 30, 1989.

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