Revenge in air at Vivente shows

Vengeance, death, magic mark works in double bill

Opera Review

October 22, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

To open its fifth season, Opera Vivente is shining the spotlight on two unusual items that deal with vengeance, death and the supernatural - Henry Mollicone's The Face on the Barroom Floor and Puccini's first stage work, Le Villi. It adds up to an interesting, if not always rewarding, double bill.

Mollicone's 1978 one-act, set in present-day and Old-West Colorado, spins a fanciful yarn about how a woman's face came to be painted on a barroom floor (the opera is often performed in the actual Central City, Colo., pub that boasts this image).

Scored for three singers and three instruments, the 25-minute opera moves quickly, via flashback, to establish a violent background for the painting and set up a repeat of the tragic events. The musical style combines kinetic honky-tonk riffs and angular vocal lines with bursts of lyrical passion.

On Sunday afternoon in the company's intimate performance space in a hall at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, John Bowen's straightforward direction had the action moving swiftly, though not without some awkward spots, on a bare-essentials set designed and lit by Paul Christensen.

As the tourist who visits the bar with his girlfriend and, during the flashback, the painter who prompts a deadly scene, tenor Byron Jones sang brightly and proved a plausible actor.

Daniel Olson, as the bartenders, past and present, produced a ripe sound and vibrant phrases. The role of the woman at the lethal center of the plot calls for more vocal warmth and theatrical finesse than soprano Melinda Clonts summoned.

The instrumental ensemble did spirited work.

Le Villi certainly reflects the limitations of an inexperienced opera composer, but there's also more than enough quality of workmanship in the 1884 score to prove Puccini was already developing into a major talent. The real problem here is the plot, which drips with cliches as it spins a tale of a woman who comes back from the dead to haunt her faithless lover. Not even a mature Puccini could have done much with this.

Originally set in Germany's Black Forest, the action, such as it is, has been transported to Scotland for this production; the kilts don't help the credibility factor much. Nor does Bowen's direction, which allows for a lot of old-fashioned poses and motions within Christensen's simple set.

But there are deft, original touches, including the introduction of the "villi" (the spirits of abandoned women, portrayed by fluttery dancers) early in the opera and the depiction of Anna's funeral during one of the orchestral interludes.

Bowen's English translation of the Italian libretto works well enough, though some phrases ("get going," for one) struck me as rather unmusical.

Clonts, as the heartsick Anna, was again a weak link on Sunday. A strident edge in the tone and lack of soft, high notes proved detrimental, especially in the Act 1 aria, one of Puccini's most endearing ideas. Studied gestures compounded the bland portrayal. Olson poured on the rich tones as Anna's suffering father, sounding very much like a baritone with a future.

Jones tackled the role of Robert, which includes one of the longest tenor scenes in Italian opera, with admirable fortitude, if not quite enough solidity at the top of the voice.

The chorus sang energetically, moved awkwardly. Conductor Aaron Sherber, who prepared the reduced-orchestra arrangement of the score, kept things together for the most part and put a particularly expressive spin on the interludes. But he also rushed Anna's aria and often over-emphasized the opera's persistent three-beat pulse.

Some accidents aside, the instrumentalists held up their part of the production efficiently.

Opera Vivente

What: The Face on the Barroom Floor/Le Villi

Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 24 and 26

Tickets: $28, $20 for students and seniors

Call: 410-547-7997.

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