The Post decided to pass on a review of the Caramoor Maria di Rohan (July 24), but the presentation is definitely worth a mention and some discussion, so let’s take it to parterre.
First off, the work is very interesting, though, like so much of this fringe repertoire, somewhat uneven. The first act is pretty but less than engaging: in fact, it’s almost a parody of the stereotyped bel canto structure: introduction, four extended arias, finale, and after all that stage time we basically now know everyone’s name and some of the back story.
The sense of stasis is exacerbated by the lack of contrast in the three slow/fast arias, one each for the star soprano, tenor and baritone characters. None of these include the “distacco di pensiero” between the adagio and cabaletta movements that Verdi later reminded Piave was so important. In other words, we first get the tenor singing “Can’t help loving that Maria” slowly ,and then the same dramatic idea in a faster tempo. Then the soprano draws out one mood over two movements, and so forth.
UPDATE: It has just been pointed out to La Cieca by someone she hopes is a member of the cher public that in fact the soprano (and to a lesser extent) the baritone both experience the “distacco di pensiero” mentioned above. La Cieca missed it. She blames the heat.
The act is broken up by a couplets number for the travesti mezzo, a piece that splits the difference between “Nella fatal di Rimini” and “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” (This is one of two interpolated showpieces Donizetti wrote for a Paris revival of the work that upgraded the comprimario tenor part of Gondì to a lead for star mezzo Marietta Brambilla.) I understand why Will Crutchfield wanted to include this ditty (it’s lovely and Vanessa Cariddi knocked it out of the park) but I also think this light divertissement throws off the generally serious tone of the work. This is particularly a problem because Gondì appears for only one act before he is killed in a duel that our hero tenor apparently is afraid to show up for (his best friend, the husband whose wife he wants to boff, appears instead to skewer the mezzo). Let’s just say that nobody comes out of this affair looking good, or anyway, surely it’s bad economy to give the best tune in the show to a singer who gets killed off after the first act.
I should mention here, or rather I should have mentioned earlier, that the title role went to a very well prepared cover indeed, Jennifer Rowley, who even was off book for this one-off concert performance, very impressive indeed. I didn’t care for the basic quality of the voice that suffered from an overdriven quality, something like Carol Vaness on a bad night, so the pitch often sounded ambiguous. She did bat out all the wild roulades in the first cabaletta with great energy and attack, and indeed made the part sound so brilliant I was left wondering exactly how the allergy-felled Takesha Meshé Kizart might have coped with the single piece in the opera that requires that kind of virtuosity. (All the rest of Maria’s music is essentially lyric, comparable to the role of Violetta minus “Sempre libera.” But that act 1 cabaletta sounded to me much flashier than the Traviata equivalent, quite different from anything Kizart has done.
But enough speculation. Rowley deserves credit for saving the performance and for singing musically and confidently. She even rose to high eloquence in the score’s great moment, “Havvi un dio” in the final act.
So, anyway, we do get past the first act, and fortunately by that point the broiling heat began to abate a little. At this point, both the plot and the music of the work started to seem leaner and more dramatic. It develops, in fact, into a sort of proto-Ballo, the identical dramatic situation and even the touches of irony leavening the darkness of the story. The big love duet for the guilty lovers is too close to the equivalent piece in act 2 of Verdi’s opera for the similarity to be pure coincidence, though, as it turns out, the placement of this climactic movement in Donizetti’s opera is a little weak, at the end of an act and so not allowing for the humiliating, black-comic interruption by the unknowing cuckold of a husband.
The two leading men, singing roles written for the creators of Ernani and Nabucco, were pretty much on the same level as Ms. Rowley: solid, but not starry. The very light tenor of Luciano Botelho coped easily with the high tessitura of the role of Riccardo but disappeared when singing in unison with the soprano. Baritone Scott Bearden seemed to wield the technique if not the instrument of Cornell MacNeil as the vengeful Enrico, with a top so easy and metallic in color that one has to wonder if he isn’t perhaps a dramatic tenor in disguise.
Crutchfield assembled a convincing, fairly straightforward edition from the various materials Donizetti prepared for various productions of this opera. When in the third act the score turned great, he rose to the occasion with sensitive, poetic leadership.