Cher Public

Too cloistered for comfort

New Amsterdam Opera, first heard last year in a surprisingly enjoyable performance of La forza del destino, returned on Saturday night with a concert version of Donizetti’s elaborate score La favorita, offering energy, panache and several top-notch young soloists.

The evening’s special find was Steven Labrie as King Alfonso, a strapping figure with a thrilling baritone of the proper size and serene, bel canto ease for any Donizetti role you care to mention. The duplicitous Castilian king (Leonora’s lover, Fernando’s betrayer) was just the sort of suave figure to show off Labrie’s elegance of delivery and sureness of technique, and the crowd adored him.

The only question in anyone’s mind concerned his rather unvarying level of sound—can he sing softly as beautifully as he sings loudly, underline a phrase for dramatic effect? We do not know and yearn to find out.

Donizetti wrote a lot of operas for star baritone, but around here we only know those that feature a star soprano; it would be a fine thing if Labrie took on Belisario or Torquato Tasso. He cut a fine figure in a performance dedicated to the memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and he does not grind gears at the end of a phrase as Dima used to do.

Catherine Martin, in the title role of Leonora da Guzman, brought a vast, plummy sound to this sensuous but self-questioning role, with Wagnerian intensity and soaring phrases if few flights of coloratura. Leonora does not enjoy herself very much—she’s too wracked with guilt, and Martin explored this in long-breathed, beautifully unfolding lines. An exciting performance.

Soprano April Martin sang her confidante, Ines (who gets a cute little double aria, more than most confidantes ever sing). She seemed miscast because her voice is of major weight, too grand for this light intermezzo role.

Kevin Thompson’s warmly reassuring basso seems created to play abbots—inquisitors, high priests, deans, what-have-you—and he offered both godlike wrath and confessional consolation in full-breathed phrases of great smoothness and fluency.

I wish I could rave about the entire cast, but Peter Drackley, who sang a fine Macduff with LoftOpera two years ago, found himself out of his depth as Fernando, his agreeable voice constricted and tight. Maybe the role lies in a clumsy place for his lyric tenor or perhaps he was suffering in the humid weather, but he was the weak link in a fine cast.

About the only other disappointment in an evening full of pleasure was the edition of the score used, a wretched Italian translation of the French La Favorite. Keith Chambers, New Amsterdam’s conductor and director, took care to thank Eve Queler—who was present—for lending them the parts, which she conducted on two occasions at Carnegie Hall.

It is perhaps too expensive to obtain scores with the original French libretto, last heard in New York City for the opera’s local premiere in 1845, but after the excellent Caramoor performance in French starring Clémentine Margaine two years ago, one grows still more impatient with the absurdities of the Italian.

The score was snipped of the ballet and several cabaletta repeats but still ran to a hefty three hours of Grade A Donizetti.

The male chorus of the company was sadly underpowered for affronted Castilian courtiers, and the two acts in which they play monks and should overwhelm us with religious reflections went rather by the wayside. That’s the sort of awkwardness so often encountered with small opera companies. But the orchestra, though small, was impressively able and together, no mean feat in a grand opera score.

If this company can expand to more than one event per annum and more commodious digs than the Center at West Park (Amsterdam and 86th Street), excellent though its acoustics are and however lovely its Romanesque revival stuccos, we may find here the long-awaited and worthy successor to OONY. All they need, I suspect, is money.