The evening's opening act was White Magic, a New York trio fronted by Mira Billotte, a member of the currently inactive D.C. band Quix*o*tic. Billotte played piano or guitar and sang such minor-key tunes as "One-Note," accompanied by a guitarist and drummer who loudly followed her every move. The effect was to overpower material that sounds more appealing on the trio's new CD, "Through the Sun Door."
-- Mark Jenkins
Opera Bel Canto
Had 19th-century composer Gaetano Donizetti alighted at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church on Sunday evening, he might have been pleased with Opera Bel Canto's presentation of "La Favorita." Not only had the company faithfully restored his tragic opera's libretto and music, but it also gave the work a heartfelt concert performance.
When Donizetti's French opera debuted in Italy 160 years ago, censors altered the libretto because it portrayed a Roman Catholic seminarian's illicit affair with a Spanish king's mistress. The amended Italian version survived in opera houses until it came under the scrutiny of Micaele Sparacino, Opera Bel Canto founder and director, who recently dusted off Donizetti's original Italian score and reconciled the libretto with the original French version. His resulting refurbishment reinstates three previously omitted musical numbers.
Under Sparacino, the soloists and Bel Canto chorus maintained solid pitch throughout the 180-minute "Favorita" despite the many intonation problems in the six-piece orchestra. Nothing could be done about the organ's pitch or the surprisingly untuned piano, but the string quartet's temperamental tuning improved slowly as the evening progressed.
In the title role as mistress Leonora, Marje Palmieri animated the performance with her dynamically expressive soprano, dramatic musicality and energetic coloratura. As King Alfonso, Valentin Vasiliu was Palmieri's baritone counterpart, with a dark, melted caramel tone. Tenor Antonio Giuliano played Leonora's lover, Fernando, with a fluid, clarion voice. He shed his militaristic poise in Act 4 to sing a poignant duet with Palmieri -- one of the evening's best moments.
-- Grace Jean
Sam Phillips, Eszter Balint
Two female singer-songwriters delighted the crowd at a packed Iota on Sunday night, their husky voices recounting tales of love (more often failed than fairy tale). Up first was Eszter Balint, who first received attention 20 years ago for her lead role in Jim Jarmusch's film "Stranger Than Paradise." Balint's nervousness between songs was apparent -- she played pre-recorded messages asking fans to visit her Web site -- but she slipped into a comfortable groove while performing, especially when playing violin (which she plucked like a guitar on one tune). She crammed lyrics into a near-rap spoken-word delivery, making her song "Good Luck" sound like a Luscious Jackson outtake. Her coarse alto complemented her accompanist's banjo, transforming the full-band arrangements from her recordings into a solid duo performance.
Sam Phillips logged 19 delicate love songs in just over an hour's time; many of them ended with an awkward pause as the audience tried to determine whether the song had really finished. Phillips took her torch-song schtick to its extreme, even introducing her band mates as "the men who break my heart every night" and reciting a love letter to fellow love-song-writer Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields.
Despite the lovelorn emotions, her quirky delivery and clever lyrics were more likely to make the audience laugh in sympathy than reach for a hankie. Although her songs all felt similar, Phillips mixed up the arrangement of instruments from song to song without losing momentum. She played many with a full band (drums, violin and keyboards behind her guitar), but she also sang with each of those instruments alone, a cappella, and even with a recorded track on a Dictaphone that she periodically shook to distort its tone. It was that kind of playful invention that gave each songwriter's tales of heartbreak a fresh feel.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The American Chamber Players performed Friday at the Kreeger Museum.