Monday, February 13, 2006

Bel Cantanti Opera Company

The 19-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff managed to pack into the one hour of his graduation thesis opera, "Aleko," all the love-triangle elements and associated passionate arias, crowd scenes and bloody denouement that keep most operas busy for three or four times as long. "Aleko" requires only one set, a quartet of good singers, a chorus and an orchestra, and it is full of wonderfully 19th-century Russian sonorities. It would seem to be the perfect vehicle for the Bel Cantanti Opera Company, which, under the direction of Katerina Souvorova, has been featuring young singers in low-budget opera productions in the Washington area since 2003.

The show, which opened for a four-performance run at Hand Chapel on the Mount Vernon Campus of George Washington University on Friday -- the snowstorm canceled yesterday's performance -- proved to be a curious mix of the elegantly professional and the awkwardly amateur.

In the leading roles were four splendid singers who could also act: soprano Cristina Nassif as the passionate but unfaithful Zemphira; baritone Bryan Jackson as Aleko, her unlucky husband; tenor Issachah Savage as the young Gypsy who is the "other man"; and bass Vladimir Ekzarkhov as Zemphira's father. All four have big, rich voices, well suited to the Russian repertoire (but, at times, too big for the small Hand Chapel space), and all four sang intelligently and musically. They were backed up, however, by a string quartet-piano-harp ensemble that sounded puny in this company, as well as a chorus of Gypsy folk, whose costumes were beautiful but whose amateur status was all too obvious.

The minimal set, the lighting and the projected translations, which could have been handled artistically, weren't. Perhaps all this played into the company's purpose -- to spotlight local operatic talent -- but it made for an oddly unintegrated experience.

There will be two performances next weekend, at locations in Arlington and Bethesda. More information is available at .

-- Joan Reinthaler

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio

In a performance notable for its lucidity and transparency, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio framed music by Mozart and Arvo Part with a pair of trios by Shostakovich at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Saturday evening. If these three composers would seem to be strange bedfellows, in fact their music was quite comfortable in one another's company.

The Part was an adaptation of an adagio from a Mozart piano sonata, "a commentary" as Part characterized it, or "a journey through the music," as Kalichstein told the audience he preferred to think of it. It is gentle. Mozart emerges, but he is projected through an imagination born of a very different age. The piece was commissioned for this ensemble in 1992, and was played with great affection and a sense of leisurely unfolding.

It was also a fine bridge between the opening Shostakovich Trio No. 1, its one movement full of passion and technical experimentation, and the Mozart B-flat Trio, K. 502, both playful and serene.

But it was the reading of the concluding Shostakovich Second Trio that brought the audience to its feet. Controlled and exuberant, it was a performance that highlighted coherence and classicism in the music of a composer not generally recognized for either.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Czech Nonet

The Czech Nonet, founded in 1924, has remained active and renowned through a world war, an oppressive communist regime and the Velvet Revolution, and the current iteration of the ensemble showed why on Friday night when it played the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium.

The nonet's diverse instruments were perfectly balanced (Vladimira Klanska's unfailingly decorous and lively French horn was particularly impressive), the musicians made countless lovely blends from their timbres, and their performances sang with infectious joy in musicmaking. It was a treat to hear them.

Mozart's Oboe Quartet, the only piece on the program featuring reduced forces, received a fleet and spirited reading that brought out the composer's grace and balance. Oboist Vladislav Borovka played well enough through most of the work -- especially when unspooling the melody of the somber slow movement -- to excuse his jumping the gun during the most difficult passage of the finale.

The two pieces featuring the full nonet showed the group's sound in its full splendor. Jan Novak's "Baletti a 9," a neoclassical work premiered by the Czech Nonet in 1956, bounced along with well-sprung rhythms, catchy folk-influenced melodies and transparent textures; the present nonet also made the most of its occasional opportunities for sustained lyricism.

In a transcription of Brahms's Serenade No. 1, which some believe was originally written for nonet, the group's ample sound temporarily erased memories of the orchestral version. The performance glowed with warmth but flowed easily, bringing out all the charm and lyrical ardor in one of Brahms's sunniest works while making the intricate development of his material sound inevitable and satisfying.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone

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