Annapolis Opera offers passionate 'Cav/Pag'

That double dose of high passion among the lower orders -- Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (a perennially popular pairing known as Cav/Pag, for short) -- presented Annapolis Opera with quite a challenge over the weekend. At $125,000, this was the most expensive production in the company's 36-year history. I haven't seen much of that history, but I'd say that, on balance, this venture represented a respectable, often quite effective effort for a small community organization.

I caught Friday's performance at the Maryland Hall, with lots of gloomy thoughts in my head from the news of Baltimore Opera's pathetic demise. That probably wasn't the best day to catch a performance that couldn't help but be on a much smaller scale than what, most of the time, the Baltimore company could deliver. But, in many ways, I found it a fascinating, encouraging experience.

The look of the staging, especially for Cavalleria, was, well, economical, with simple sets and lighting that had two basic gradations: on and off. The orchestra had to sit on the floor in front of the stage because there's no pit in this converted high-school auditorium. The chorus, which has a lot to do in both operas, never quite mustered the vocal cohesion or acting ease to get past an amateur level. Nonetheless, the beauty and power of these two well-worn works came through with surprising strength, thanks largely to principal singers of considerable calibre, singers with personality and possibility. With their professionalism guiding the way, and with company artistic director and conductor Ronald J. Gretz making a valiant effort to light the verismo fire in the two scores, the evening moved right along.

The Cav cast had two standouts: soprano Alison Meuth, whose portrayal of the jilted Santuzza offered tonal richness and emotional weight; and tenor Richard Novak, who, as the faithless Turiddu, used his beefy voice with a great deal of character, milking the most ardent and explosive phrases effectively and scaling back nicely for the more lyrical moments. A little more firmness at the upper end would be welcome, but the voice is quite impressive as it is. Daniel Lickteig's baritone also registered vividly in the role of Alfio, as did his acting. Colorful work came from Michelle Rice (Lola) and Patrizia Conte (Mamma Lucia).

The Pag cast was sparked by Jonathan Burton's persasuively acted Canio, backed by a generally effective combination of vocal steel and sensitivity. Veronica Mitina could have used more vitality and tonal color as Nedda, but, at her best, she sent the melodic lines soaring nicely, especially in the duet with Jesse Blumberg (Silvio), whose warm baritone served him well. Thomas Beard needed a bit more tonal heft for Tonio's Prologue, but he scored dramatic points throughout the opera. As Beppe, Joseph Haughton sang tellingly.

The Annapolis Symphony Orchestra did not have a sterling night, although the musicians delivered the goods for each opera's most explosive passages. The playing might well have been more consistent had Gretz been in firmer control of the music. Still, he and his forces got the spirit of both turbulent operas across.

Director Braxton Peters steered a straightfoward course. He couldn't get much past oratorio-style blocking for the choristers, but he had the principals engaged strongly with each other. Pagliacci, by the way, was set here circa 1940s, giving the production a more interesting look than the traditional Cav staging.


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