Berkshire Theatre Festival

Reviews Two One-Act, Two Piano Operas: The Old Maid and the Thief & L'Heure espagnole CurtainUp

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by Elyse Sommer


TWO ONE-ACT, TWO PIANO OPERAS: The Old Maid and the Thief & L'Heure espagnole

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L'ELISIR L'AMORE (The Elixir of Love)
I missed the Berkshire Opera's first of the 2005 season events, Handel's Rinaldo, but those who heard local diva Maureen O'Flynn and the other strong of voice members of the ensemble found much to praise. Like Rinaldo, the next in line offering, a double bill of short operas, The Old Maid and the Thief & L'Heure espagnole, was a concert staging (see review below).

To cap its season, the BOC has returned to its long-time home at Berkshire Community College for a fully staged L'Elisir L'Amore. I should make that beautifully staged by Sam Helfrich, with a colorful and witty set design by Andromache Chalfant going a long way towards making this lyrical, light-hearted love story a true treat for seasoned as well as new opera goers.

The company is fortunate to have a splendid cast to give full measure to Donizetti's gorgeous score with its wealth of arias that fall on the ear like diamonds. Soprano Sari Gruber and tenor John Bellemer do full justice to the leading roles of Adina and Nemeroino. Besides singing superbly, both are attractive and act well. Baritone Troy Cook also does well as Belcore, the soldier who threatens to put an end to Nemorino's hopes of winning Adina.

To round out the leads, there's soprano Laura Choi Stuart as the perky Giannetta with whom Belcore consoles himself when Adina literally leaves him at the altor. Of course, no L'Elisir would be complete without a singer with the comic chops to play the phony elixir peddling Dr. Dulcamara. Bass-baritone Steven Condy does not disappoint in this role.

The chorus, while unlikely to win any beauty contests, handles the ensemble singing ably and energetically. Soon to be appointed BOC music director Kathleen Kelly sees to it that the company's orchestra supported but never drowned out the voices.

While Jennifer R. Helpern might have considered more flattering dresses for the chorus, her costumes generally were as witty as Chalfant's sets. Sari Gruber looked smashing in jodhpurs during the first act, and her second act costume, a gown echoing the hen-decorated blue silo, is inspired. As long as I'm praising the crafts team, Thom Weaver's lighting also deserves a round of applause.

The Felice Romani libretto based on Eugene Scribe's text for Auber's La Phitre is typically light comic opera that hardly requires one to read the super titles to follow the simple plot: Country bumpkin Nemerino yearns for the town's rich and educated beauty, Andina. A patent medicine peddler persuades him that a bottle of wine is a magic love potion that will make him irresistible. To complicate matters a another suitor, a military man, comes on scene and indeed Andina almost marries him -- but unlike tragic operas, this one allows true love to win the day.

The opera runs through September 1st. Don't miss it.

L'ELISIR L'AMORE (The Elixir of Love)
Music aby Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto byFelice Romani, based on Eugene Scribe's text for Auber's La Phitre
Stage Director: Sam Helfrich
Leading performers: Sari Gruber (Andina), Troy Cook (Belcore), John Bellemer (Nemerino), Steven Condy (Dr. Dulcamara),Carolyn A. Kahl (Giannetta)
Conductor: Kathleen Kelly
Scenic Design: Andromache Chalfant
Costume Design: Jennifer R. Halpern
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission
Berkshire Opera Company at Koussevitzky Arts Center, Pittsfield, Phone:413-442-0099
Performance dates: August 25, 27, 31, and September 2 at 8PM August 29 at 2PM

TWO ONE-ACT, TWO PIANO OPERAS: The Old Maid and the Thief & L'Heure espagnole
The Berkshire Opera Company's double bills of one-act operas performed to the accompaniment of two pianos and percussion seems to be on its way towards becoming something of an annual tradition. What unifies Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Old Maid and the Thief and Maurice Ravel's L'Heure espagnole are romantic comedies full of misunderstandings -- the Menotti, set in a small town American town, is about a spinster and her young servant's romantic interest in a handsome young stranger and a nosey neighbor; the Ravel takes us to a Spanish village and the marital complications involving a clockmaker's wife and her two lovers.

While I'm not enamored of operas with such minimal instrumental support, I was won over to this genre by last year's American Opera Trio (my review) which included Leonard Bernstein's all too rarely performed Trouble in Tahiti. The new one-acts now housed in the beautifully restored Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center again features aspiring opera stars of tomorrow who acquit themselves well. Conductor/pianist Kathleen Kelly and the second pianist, Ho-jeong Jeong once again accompany them with style.

The "fully staged" billing proved to be a drawback for the Menotti piece which begins the evening. Dipu Gupta's jumble shop staging is not only ugly but distracting, and the outfits in which Melissa Schachtmeyer dressed the singers weren't any better. It would have been more effective to go full throttle with the opera's 1939 premiere as a radio broadcast -- in other words, in addition to the authentic radio touches from the musicians, the singers would have been better served if they had worn regular street clothes and stood at microphones as if they were actually in a radio studio. The story evoked lots of giggles from the house which wasn't exactly filled to the brim -- which explains why artistic directors at all arts organizations feel compelled to use name talent if they want to sell lots of tickets at top prices.

The Raveld piece had a more visually appealing set (also by Dipu Gupta) -- an abstract design evoking images of a village with a lovely blue sky overhanging the buildings which are actually the grandfather clocks in which the lovers hide as Ravel's farcical marital mix-up unwinds. The voices again were exemplary and the broad humor seemed to resonate with the audience, especially the men (do men appreciate slapstick more than women?)

If you prefer your operas with a fuller orchestra and with more hummable arias, BOC has just the thing for you with its season closer, Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore which will play at the Koussevitzky Arts Center at Berkshire Community College Aug 25, 27, 31, 29th and Sept 2nd.

The Old Maid and the Thief
Music and libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti Cast: Sahoko Sato (Miss Todd), Laurie Domingue Lester (Miss Pinkerton), Laura Choi Stuart (Laetitia), Harry Baechtel (Bob)

L'Heure espagnole
Music by Maurice Ravel
Libretto by Franc-Nohain
Cast: Claire Molloy (Concepcion), Karim Sulayman (Gonzalve), Marc P. Callahan (Ramiro), Lee A. Steward (Ramiro), Don Inigo Jason Lester (Don Inigo Gormez)
Both performed in original language with English supertitles.
The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, 413.442.0099 July 25, 27, and 30 at 8PM; July 29 at 2PM .
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on July 25th performance
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