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Baltimore Concert Opera tackles 'Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci'

Baltimore Concert Opera might be called the "Lemonade Company" -- assuming you don't mind being reminded of that cloying line about how, when life hands you lemons, you need to learn to make lemonade.

It all started last year when Baltimore Opera Company began its pathetic slide into oblivion. A group of local singers who used to perform regularly with that organization decided to form their own enterprise, Baltimore Concert Opera, based at the Engineers Club and offering "a new way to experience real voices'' -- unstaged operas performed with piano accompaniment. From an initial budget of $1,000 for the inaugural season, BCO grew to a $50,000 operation this season.

You've got to admire all the chutzpah, the energy, the ability to connect with a portion of the opera-loving public. I only wish

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I could have admired more of the latest presentation, the venerable double bill of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." There was a real shortage of "real voices" Friday night; maybe the weaker singers will suddenly find extra strengths at the repeat performance Sunday afternoon.

"Pag" had the benefit of a compelling Silvio in baritone Michael Mayes -- rich tone, often beautiful shading, vivid phrasing. Sara Stewart's Nedda was nearly as impressive. She tended to land a little short of pitch in the upper reaches, but her voice revealed considerable promise and she fleshed out the character effectively.

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Jimi James offered dramatic fire and, for the most part, solid tonal resources as Tonio. Jeremy Blossey sang valiantly as Beppe. But, in the crucial role of Canio, Kevin Courtemanche seemed in over his head. Aside from a few brightly booming high notes, he was more tenorino than tenor, with little support in the mid and low range, and his Italian came with a heavy American accent. He certainly threw himself into the theatrical side of things (there was a good deal of acting from most of the participants), but that wasn't enough.

Courtemanche sounded even more strained and unfinished as Turridu in "Cav." Francesca Mondanaro brought abundant emotion to the role of Santuzza, but a substantial wobble and a strident, insecure top register as well. Maria Barnet likewise revealed an uneven, mostly harsh tone as Mamma Lucia. It all seemed more like an amateur operatic society for a while there. The picture improved with Jessica Renfro's generally smooth singing as Lola, and basically firm work from James as Alfio. The most exciting and spot-on vocal contribution to "Cav" came from an offstage chorister doing the "Turridu is dead" shouts at the end -- that really hit home.

In both operas, the chorus, prepared by Jim Harp, sang expressively. Doug Han was the hardworking, occasionally messy pianist. Anthony Barrese conducted.

PHOTO OF MICHAEL MAYES COURTESY OF ADA ARTIST MANAGEMENT

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