Academy of St. Martin

In the Fields

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is known for performing without a conductor, and there was something magical in watching and hearing the London-based chamber orchestra play sans maestro Saturday evening at George Mason University's Center for the Performing Arts. With a bob from Artistic Director Kenneth Sillito in the concertmaster's seat, the 21 string players commenced a mesmerizing performance.

What sets this group apart isn't so much its symbiotic synchronization as its ability to produce perfectly shaped music and, more important, to make it sound spontaneous and not canned. In Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony for Strings, Op. 110a, the Academy churned out many such memorable moments -- an eerie tiptoe waltz, a pulsating pursuit, an elegiac violin solo. While fast and loud passages in Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C, Op. 48, were rapturous, it was the notes melting into silence that captivated the soul.

The Academy forged a synergistic partnership with pianist Christopher O'Riley in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414. O'Riley played so delicately that he seemingly left no fingerprints on the keys, yet his melodies sung out with sweet clarity. The finale could have used a bit more oomph from the pianist, but perhaps O'Riley was conserving his drama for Liszt's Malediction for Piano and Strings, S. 121, a piece he commanded with expressive tone and flashy fingerwork while maintaining a careful balance with the orchestra. His super-sensitive accompaniment to the poignant cello solo was unforgettable.

-- Grace Jean

Baltimore Opera Company

It all worked to make the Baltimore Opera Company's season opener nothing short of a thriller: a barkeeper heroine with a heart of gold; a flawed but repentant outlaw hero; a malevolent sheriff; rough-hewn mountain-West sets that mirrored breathtaking panoramas fully apropos for a cavernous century-plus theater; and two cooperative horses, yet.

This was Baltimore's first production of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" (The Girl of the Golden West) Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House. Based on the American playwright David Belasco's drama, the story tells of California's harrowing Gold Rush days -- a "spaghetti western" of clear-cut good guys vs. bad, but set on an American frontier bursting with Italian grand opera lyricism.

Though desired by the jealous sheriff Jack Rance, the saloonkeeper Minnie falls for the admitted highway bandit Dick Johnson (aka Ramerrez). After an amorous night in Minnie's mountain cabin, Dick is shot and threatened with lynching by the villainous Jack and his mob of miners. But the self-sacrificing barmaid persuades the crowd to disperse and the reunited lovers happily trot off (in a real horse-drawn buggy) into, of course, the sunset.

Leading a finely responsive orchestra, conductor Andrea Licata kept the performance fast-paced for the tension-filled action and gave more leeway when the singers needed time for expressive declamations. Director Lorenza Cantini timed the staging for constant movement, whether large-scale action or meaningful yet minuscule gestures. Raffaele del Savio's sets pictured the harsh life of gold-seekers backed by gloriously highlighted mountain vistas. As Minnie, soprano Giovanna Casolla sang with vivacious warmth well matched by the powerful tenor of Frank Porretta as Dick Johnson/Ramerrez and Ned Barth's ample baritone as sheriff Jack Rance. The vigorous singing and acting of the large supporting cast was consistently effective.

The production will be repeated Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

-- Cecelia Porter

'Desert Song'

Sigmund Romberg's "Desert Song," which had two performances over the weekend in Rockville's F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, dates back to a more innocent age when people thought it might be kind of romantic to be kidnapped by Bedouins in Morocco. It ran three hours with one intermission in the Victorian Light Opera's production, and it could have been more compatible with 21st-century tastes if a half-hour, more or less, were discreetly edited out. But the copyright insists that it must be performed uncut, and so it was in Friday night's performance.

The libretto, by Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach, is hopelessly old-fashioned and not without absurdities, but a substantial audience was willing to take it for the sake of the great Romberg tunes, more than 20 of them, including "The Riff Song" (well sung by a good men's chorus), "The Desert Song" ("blue heaven and you and I") and "One Alone" (done effectively by a male trio). The performance showed the value of semi-pro companies, because "Desert Song" is worth an occasional revival (the audience applauded warmly), and one can't imagine it ever returning to Broadway.

The story tells of Pierre Birabeau (Michael Galizia), the supposedly wimpish son of the French commandant, who is secretly the Red Shadow, dynamic masked leader of the native resistance forces. The Red Shadow kidnaps the beautiful Margot (Denise Young), hoping to win her love, and the less said about the rest of the plot, the better -- except that a lot of real comedy emerges in the excellent performance of the husband-and-wife team of Richard Gorbutt (Bennie) and Rachael Goldman (Susan).

Blair Eig (Ali Ben Ali) also has some comic moments and an impressive stage presence. Otherwise, the spoken dialogue could stand some energizing. Gorbutt, Goldman and Eig all sang well, though the best singers were Elaine Dalbo (Clementina) and Young. Galizia had some of the show's best music, and he sang it intelligently but with a sometimes edgy tone.

Joseph Sorge conducted with a good sense of pace and style but the orchestra had occasional intonation problems. The production was semi-staged, with no scenery except a couple of benches, and Deborah Netzgoda's direction was sometimes rather static.

-- Joseph McLellan

Folger Consort

There is something emblematic about Giovanni Coperario, an English composer who was born around 1575 under the name of John Cooper. He flourished in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a nation that was, like all of Europe, heavily under the influence of Italy -- an influence that can be seen, for example, in Shakespeare's plays as well as in the music of Cooper, Dowland, Campion and others.

The English-Italian connection was the focus of the Folger Consort's program, titled "Sounds and Sweet Ayres," over the weekend at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The instrumental "sounds" were provided by Christopher Kendall on lute, Robert Eisenstein on viola da gamba and violin, and guest artist David Douglass, one of the world's leading performers on the Renaissance violin.

For "sweet ayres," the consort's guest was soprano Ann Monoyios, who sang at the Folger Consort's first concert in 1977, went on to become a leading international performer in baroque opera, but returns occasionally to the scene of her origins.

Monoyios was in top form, and Douglass played brilliantly in a Renaissance way, a bit less flashy than the styles later developed by Biber, Locatelli and Paganini, but solid, nimble and precisely controlled. Kendall and Eisenstein played sterling supporting roles and moved occasionally into the solo spotlight.

The music was almost evenly divided between instrumental and vocal, English and Italian, ranging from Dowland's graceful melancholy to Monteverdi's versatile brilliance. On the whole, the English composers were solid and expressive, the Italians more showy, varied and fluent, with Campion, among the Englishmen, coming closest to the Italian ideal.

The highlight of the evening in Friday's concert, beautifully sung by Monoyios, was Giulio Caccini's "Amarilli mia bella," one of the top hits of the 17th century.

-- Joseph McLellan

The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performed Saturday at George Mason University's Center for the Arts.Giovanna Casolla, left, sang the role of Minnie and Andrea Licata conducted in the Baltimore Opera's "La Fanciulla del West" at the Lyric Opera House.Soprano Ann Monoyios sang "sweet ayres" with the Folger Consort on Friday.