Opera does not require a lavish budget, familiar repertoire or a big-name cast to make a strong impact, as the Maryland Opera Studio demonstrates (not for the first time) in a double feature that will have its final performance tonight in the University of Maryland's Tawes Recital Hall. The two operas -- Thomas Pasatieri's "Maria Elena" and Bohuslav Martinu's "Comedy on the Bridge," both sung in English -- could hardly be more unfamiliar. But both are superbly crafted works, they contrast neatly, and the performance and production rise above the limitations of student musicians and lack of funds in memorable portrayals of people in conflict and emotions pushed to extremes.
"Maria Elena" (based on actual events) tells a story of constant, intense and vividly varied suffering with a style and power that evoke Verdi and Puccini, with some modern harmonies and a strong flavor of verismo. Maria, a widow lured into a life of crime by her new lover, is involved in a robbery and homicide (graphically shown) and much of the short opera tells of the physical, verbal and psychological abuse she suffers in prison. Pasatieri's music calls for a voice of exceptional musical and emotional power, and these requirements are impressively supplied by Jean Anne Teal, whose singing unfortunately lacks verbal clarity. Jeff Kensmoe and Carol Hawkins stand out in a generally good supporting cast, and the show is nearly stolen by Samantha Phillips in the role of a sadistic prison official.
Phillips's performance becomes even more impressive when compared with her equally fine performance in a very different role (a rather simple-minded young lady) in "Comedy on the Bridge." This is a profound, witty and musically inventive fable of the human condition that reads very much like a Zen parable: Two hostile armies occupy opposite banks of a river. Between them is a bridge that people with proper credentials can enter but, once on it, cannot leave. Kensmoe and Hawkins also sing well in this work, as does William Killmeier. Robert Craig and Charles Rutherford act effectively in the non-singing roles of two sentries. In both operas, Yasuhiro Miura shows a promising talent in need of further seasoning.
The effect of the production is greatly enhanced by the thoughtful, uncluttered stage direction of Rhoda Levine and William Hudson's conducting. Michael Franklin-White's sets (mostly wooden chairs and coffinlike boxes that can be arranged as prison cells, platforms or a bridge) use imagination cleverly to surmount financial disadvantages.