`Tosca' proves that praise for company is well-deserved

Opera International melds youth, experience for annual performance

August 12, 1999|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Only an hour's drive from Severna Park is a jewel of an opera company that performs one opera each year in August at the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University.

Founded by Muriel Lee Hom in 1994, Opera International is an intergenerational enterprise in which young artists perform leading roles and established singers help them develop their artistry.

Last weekend's production of Puccini's "Tosca" also showed how international the company is. Conductor Edward Roberts is from the United States, along with director Muriel Von Villas, tenor Drew Slatton, and baritone Jason Stearns; soprano Hai-bo Bai and baritone Sun Yu came from China; bass Yu-hsi Bai from Taiwan; and tenor Giancarlo Bacigalupo from Peru.

I had wanted to hear Opera International because I had heard only praise for this still largely unknown company. "Tosca" was especially interesting because Yu will sing the role of Scarpia in the Annapolis Opera's November production of "Tosca."

Opera International's interest in young artists extends to children. Twelve-year-old Zachary Bernhard of Edgewater sang the shepherd boy's folk song that opens Act 3.

Lisner Auditorium is an excellent facility, with all seats near its large stage. Opera buffs could enjoy a great score matched to a good libretto, first-rate musicians and singers within the striking architecture of sets.

Few operas rival the drama of Puccini's most verismo and epic work, emphasized in Opera International's striking sets from Tri-Cities Opera Company.

The title role was beautifully sung by Bai, who captured Tosca's passion and conveyed her nagging jealousy with a hint of humor in Act 1. Bai was equally skilled at suggesting Tosca's vulnerability in a gorgeous "Vissi d'arte."

Slatton's Mario Cavaradossi was also well realized with a rapturous "Recondita armonia" in Act 1, and an almost perfect "E lucevan le stelle." The aria was beautifully sung until the phrase, "Svani per sempre" ("Vanished forever") when Slatton sobbed. Puccini has no peer in expressing emotion without ever crossing into the maudlin. Slatton degenerated into paroxysms of sobs by the end of the aria. I hope he will abandon such theatrics in the future.

Yu was impressive as the evil Scarpia. With his magnetic stage presence, He was compelling when he entered the church, darkly sinister in the "Te Deum." Yu's expressive, resonant voice was well-suited to the part.

Stearns was particularly impressive in the role of Angelotti. As for Zachary, he gave a touching performance of the shepherd boy's folk song. His voice is clear, bright and agile, but we could not hear him at times when he was overpowered by the orchestra.

It was a joy to hear Zachary on a legitimate opera stage, knowing he will soon appear with New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he has been accepted as a member of the Children's Chorus.

Anyone who enjoys opera should plan to attend Opera International's presentation next August. This first-rate company spares no effort to bring fine opera at prices ranging from $30 to $45.

Information: Muriel Lee Hom, 301-365-3479.

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