Shuffle the cards and hitch up the caravans for Morningside! In the same season that Manhattan School of Music revived The Gypsy Baron, Riverside Theater around the corner is the site of Amore Opera’s “Season of Gypsy Operas.” This consists, in typical Amore fashion, of a lively staging of a repertory staple, in this case Carmen, plus a bel canto rarity, the American premiere of Donizetti’s La Zingara.
The latter was double cast, on May 30 and 31, and you never know when lightning will strike. Why not attend both? So I did. Carmen, for that matter, was triple cast; I went to the prima on May 27. There will be six performances through June 3.
La Zingara, a work of 1822, is a semiseria and Donizetti’s seventh opera. The composer, 25 and making his Neapolitan debut, was the star pupil of Giovanni Simone Mayr, the rare German composer to concede that Italians had anything to teach him, and Mayr and Rossini are the principal influences on La Zingara. The solo arias do not demonstrate much originality but the title character gets a rondo finale of Rossinian brilliance.
The concerted numbers, however, are fascinating and well absorbed in the plot: a men’s trio in Act II, a complex sextet for three ill-assorted couples in Act I, where the composer shows impressive skill in pulling unusual pairs into a coherent whole, and a splendid septet at the opera’s denouement are full of charming melody and harmonic progressions that hurtle to dramatic high points.
A problem in reviving this score—which never played outside Naples back in the day—was that it was designed as a vehicle for a local buffo celebrity, one Carlo Casaccia, who had been doing shtick in Neapolitan dialect for forty years. You know the type—to his fans he could do no wrong, and he had license to keep at it all night if he cared to.
Even a sophisticated Frenchman, Stendhal, found him hilarious, so imagine a combination of Fernando Corena and Jerry Lewis. It didn’t matter what anyone wrote for him (especially a foreigner—Donizetti came from the far north), Casaccia would do his own thing. He even persuaded the obliging composer to flesh out a comic servant role for his, Casaccia’s, son, to keep the dynasty rolling.
Casaccia played Papaccione, a greedy but cowardly jailer, easily persuaded by Argilla, the spunky Gypsy Girl, that a buried fortune awaits him at the bottom of a haunted well. Just leave those annoying keys with her—their jingling annoys the Spirits. The show was composed with spoken dialogue rather than recit (a tradition of Neapolitan buffo), and Casaccia took it from there.
Frederic Rice, singing it for Amore, is a cut-up, and by the second performance he was beginning to realize no one would fight if he hogged the stage for a pratfall. Company impresario and director Nathan Hull, besides inserting odd jokes in the (English-language) dialogue (and why not?), tossed in special effects, explosions and so forth, to enhance the physical humor.
La Zingara is a rescue opera; imagine Fidelio if Gypsies showed up to solve all Beethoven’s cliffhangers. There is even a long, glum, orchestrally-introduced prisoner’s monologue in the dark. There is also a daddy-doesn’t-approve love story and a murder-swap out of Strangers on a Train. Donizetti probably didn’t know Fidelio or Hitchcock (Gli stranieri sul treno, anyone?), but he may well have heard Paër’s Leonora. There is, if anything, too much plot, but hang in there. The ensembles are worth hearing. The boy was good. Even the haughty professors at the Naples Conservatory noticed the septet.
Melissa Serluco, Tuesday night’s Argilla the Gypsy, has a large, even, agile mezzo, admirable fireworks for the showpieces and a take-charge stage presence. Her talents are precisely suited to the part and to any number of Rossini buffo heroines. On Wednesday, Andrea Howland-Myers showed rather less power and less stage comfort. The sopranos singing Inès, wicked Don Ranuccio’s unhappy daughter, were both capable (especially in love duets) but unextraordinary.
On Tuesday, too, I liked the liquid, flowing tenor of dark-eyed Jeremy Brauner’s Fernando, which seemed just the right size and leggiero quality for bel canto. On Wednesday, in the same role, Alexey Kukharskiy gave evidence of similar evenness and grace, and his hair-style made him look like Lermontov, just right for the era.
Robert Garner sang the wicked Don Ranuccio on both nights with a fine light bass-baritone, but his real gifts for this sort of role are a murderous scowl of frustration and an oily hypocritical grin that would not deceive a puppy but somehow does fool half the cast. Both expressions appear to be cribbed from the Vincent Price playbook, and are great qualifications for melodrama. Hanging onto them while singing is the gift. Offering his wretched daughter a bouquet of black flowers is icing on the cake.
Jay Gould sang Florestan’s—sorry, Don Sebastiano’s—soliloquy with quiet power that was not matched on Wednesday by Peter Ludwig, but I liked both the Dukes, Jed Kim and David Bailey, and they joined their two Fernandos in splendid accounts of the good-guys’ trio. La Toya Lewis, as Amelia, had a couple of really powerful notes concealed behind a smiling exterior and let them fly at a high point in the septet when we were taken off guard. Douglas Martin conducted, holding the unfamiliar score together smartly.
La Zingara drags as the plot twists and turns and tosses and brings in supernatural scenes (Donizetti doing a very passable send-up of Gluck’s Orfeo), but it’s a reliable predictor of great ensembles in the young man’s future and made him popular in Naples—the site, you may recall, thirteen years later, of Lucia di Lammermoor. It has been so admired in its current run that Opera Amore talks of bringing it back in October. If you get a chance to hear Miss Serluco in the role, grab it.
Amore’s Carmen was an old-fashioned, no-nonsense full staging of the score (dialogue, not recits). The narrow Riverside stage seemed cluttered, with sets, café tables, huge children’s chorus, vaguely Hispanic dancers (four), soldiers, cigarettes, smugglers, fancy capework, everything but the bull—but the narrow streets of Seville are that cluttered, especially in tourist season. Cast and chorus handled some lively theatrical “business” for the ensembles (direction, again, by Mr. Hull), and the roses and knives all struck the proper adversaries. (Okay, a carnation not a rose. Hard times.)
The singers on opening night were quite strong. Pretty Iris Karlin took on flirtatious airs with rather too much hands-akimbo-on-swinging-hips. My criticism is one I make of nearly every Carmen: this lady is working too hard to be the Seductress of Seville. Carmen should be as casual in her man-izing as she is about everything else.
But when this Carmen turns up the death card, she’s too casual: she might be scratching a troublesome Lotto ticket. Karlin’s voice is sensuous at one moment, arid the next (in the same phrase), a rich and fruity vibrato here, a toneless statement there. Karlin got the job done, but this complicated role is not a natural fit for her.
Her Don José was Riad Ymeri, a burly, handsome fellow with a clarion tenor and an assured delivery, a little short at the top of the scale but warm, even, well produced, with the merest hint of a winning sob. José’s affection for the ladies in his life was ardent and his knife work sincere. Robert Hee-Pyoung Oh cut a less than flashy figure as Escamillo, but his baritone was solid.
Helaine Liebman sang Micaëla with a sweet and powerful lyric soprano that sounds ready for the Verdi middle-period heroines. In the smaller roles, I liked the Dancaïre of Spencer Leopold Cohen, and Stephanie Leotsakos’ Frasquita was a standout. (And when does Frasquita stand out?)
The orchestra had a few scrappy moments but the drummer kept his thumping low, the cornet solo was charming, the bassoon is to be commended for the prelude to Act II (rivaling “Una furtiva lacrima” as the greatest moment for lyric bassoon in all opera), and the entire score rattled along with never a sag under the lively direction of Richard Cordova.