'Barber' hits some rough patches

Arts Scene

New opera company shows promise in its first production

(Handout photo )
November 24, 2009|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com

The void left by the demise of the Baltimore Opera Company last year will not be easily filled. That reality was reinforced Sunday afternoon with the debut performance by the Baltimore Opera Theatre before a modest, appreciative, audience at the Hippodrome.

Described in the program book as "a new opera company with an aesthetic view of the arts ... not based on frivolous budgets and grandiosity," the enterprise offered a production of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" that contained roughly equal portions of professionalism and provincialism.

It would have been unrealistic, of course, to expect an operatic savior to emerge so soon after the Baltimore Opera Company's liquidation. And it is entirely possible that the next Baltimore Opera Theatre production - Verdi's "Rigoletto" in March - will be much sturdier and more consistent.

Bulgarian-born, Baltimore-based artistic director Giorgio Lalov initially promised a homegrown venture when he announced the formation of the company several months ago. But he has drawn, at least for this inaugural season, on the resources of his long-running touring group, Teatro Lirico d'Europa, which uses mostly Eastern European performers.

The Baltimore "Barber" leaned decidedly in a Bulgarian direction - most of the soloists onstage were from that country; most of the musicians in the pit came from the Sofia Symphony Orchestra.

The nationality doesn't matter a bit, of course (the Baltimore Opera Company often brought in productions - lock, stock and soprano - from Italy). It's the level of artistic quality that counts, and this is where things got spotty.

The shortcomings were particularly intense in the two areas where the old Baltimore Opera boasted strong, locally developed assets - the chorus and orchestra.

The small contingent of male choristers in this "Barber" sounded woeful and moved clumsily, an embarrassment by any measure.

Orchestral playing on Sunday was frequently sloppy. (The program indicated "local Baltimore musicians" were combined with the Sofia group, but they represented a small portion.) And the crucial matter of recitatives, played here on an electronically simulated harpsichord, became another drawback - a series of leaden arpeggios that killed the musical flow.

Such things would matter greatly in any performance of "Barber," but even more so when an opera company is trying to make a good first impression. And the weaknesses were all the more unfortunate given the quite respectable level of the cast, which got fully into the spirit of things.

Petar Danailov was a buoyant, assured Figaro with a generally solid baritone and considerable stylistic flair. Benjamin Brecher, as Almaviva, had some trouble with top notes, but otherwise offered sure technique and elegant phrasing in his arias. The tenor also proved to be a witty actor in his two big comic scenes.

Viara Zheleova brought an ample, vibrant mezzo and abundant personality to the role of Rosina. A little more tonal coloring would have been welcome here and there, but this was very potent vocalism.

As Dr. Bartolo, Hristo Sarafov gave a good old-fashioned, burly, buffo performance, hamming it up mightily and enjoyably. Konstantine Videv's singing as Don Basilio was a little dry, but reflected solid experience in the Rossini idiom. Jo-Anne Herrero's Berta was so vibrantly sung that it was a pity her aria was cut.

The one prominent Baltimore element in the proceedings was conductor Markand Thakar, music director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. This was not his shining hour. Although he shaped some portions of the score deftly and sensitively (the "Zitti, zitti" trio came off in delectable fashion, for example), a lot of his conducting was brusque and square, giving the music little breathing room. And coordination between pit and stage was erratic.

Lalov was credited with the traditional, workable sets and costumes (more pulled together than freshly designed, it appeared). He also served as stage director, getting enough laughs in the right places, but often resorting to rudimentary traffic control.

I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Zheleova sing "Una voce poco fa" so shamelessly to the audience, and even take a little bow afterward, but that sort of thing looked provincial with a capital P.

Even worse was the decision - apparently because of the time needed for rearranging the set - to take the single intermission after the first scene. That put the whole opera out of balance, and reduced the usual impact of Rossini's brilliant Act 1 finale.

Although the Baltimore Opera Theatre's arrival on the scene turned out to be a mixed bag, there certainly were signs of potential. (It also provided a good reminder that the Hippodrome can accommodate this artistic genre nicely.) It will be interesting to see how things develop from here, and whether this new venture will turn out one day to be the answer to the city's operatic prayers.

Single Carrot premiere
The Single Carrot Theatre is about to premiere what is described as "an entirely wordless, movement and dance-based production" called "Illuminoctem." (It also will have some nudity and adult themes.)

Based on a late 19th-century short story by George MacDonald called "The Day Boy and The Night Girl," the work is a collaborative effort that features choreography by Kwame Opare from the off-Broadway show "Stomp," Naoko Maeshiba from Towson University, and local dancers Sarah Anne Austin and Marilyn Mullen; costumes by Chelsea Carter from the Jim Henson Company; and a score by Jesse Case, music director of Second City's touring company.

A preview performance will be held Wednesday; opening night is Friday. The production will run through Dec. 20 at the Single Carrot Theatre, 120 W. North Ave. (at Load of Fun). For tickets, call 443-844-9253 or go to singlecarrot.com.

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