The scrappy and peripatetic Bel Cantanti Opera has grown, and grown fast.
A couple of seasons ago it presented a double bill, using several singers in principal roles in both operas. This past weekend, it landed at Catholic University’s Rome Recital Hall, again presenting two operas (two performances each, separately ticketed), but each was double-cast with no overlap. Solely on the evidence of the Sunday performance of Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus,” I would offer a note of caution. The company’s admirable drive and sense of mission (offering operatic training and performance opportunities to pre-professional singers) can be diluted if it takes on too many people. Better, perhaps, to focus on those with a fighting chance to go on to viable careers rather than expand for the sake of expansion.
With its shoestring budget, the company has always worked hard on lively stagings. This production by Catherine Huntress-Reeve was full of goofy, updated cultural references: Alfred sings a snatch of “La Boheme,” characters text one another, there’s a bit of gangnam-style dancing, and there’s a joke about sequestration. Laura Whittenberger, as Adele, was stunning in a slinky black-and-white cocktail dress. The chorus was generally good, but badly unbalanced as to gender; the many unattended women had to look thrilled talking to one another throughout the party.
But opera is, at its core, supposed to be about the music, and it was an uphill battle. The performers had to contend with the hall’s thunderous air-conditioning, which obscured a lot of dialogue. The orchestra — about a dozen college-age musicians — was marred by the presence of an electric piano, which unnecessarily doubled instruments that were present and inexplicably failed to cover some of the parts that were absent. The timbre itself was grating in this effervescent score full of brilliant orchestration, particularly in the overture.
The cast was strong at the top, but the quality dropped considerably for the lesser roles. Certainly the standout, vocally, was Meredith Marano as Rosalinde. She has a very powerful instrument, with an effortless high D. Further refinement will surely come as the voice matures. Whittenberger was uneven but delivered her big Act III number with polish. Aaron Halevy as Eisenstein was solid, but fairly bland. Eric McKeever as Falke had powerful stage presence, although his German diction was wanting. Conductor Joel Borelli-Boudreau was sprightly, mellifluous and expressive, though he rarely got everything he was asking for from the orchestra.
Bel Cantanti’s productions are always worth attending, despite their shortcomings; one hopes the day will come soon when it has the budget for a proper theater with a proper orchestra.
Battey is a freelance writer.