Suspicious Cheese Lords

The Suspicious Cheese Lords, a male a cappella ensemble, specializes in medieval and Renaissance music, but Sunday's concert in the downtown St. Patrick's Church included compositions ranging from 1500 to the present.

One of the group's specialties is the virtually unknown French composer Elzear Genet (c. 1470-1548), also called Carpentras after the town where he was born, whose music fills their first recording. They sang two of his works, "Crucem Tuam" and "Tibi Christe," and the music's style was completely compatible with the works of two composers born in 1977: Alan Dunbar and Philip W.J. Stopford. Stopford's deeply appealing "If Ye Love Me," in what is believed to be its American premiere, sounded like a work that will be heard often.

The program, which scrupulously printed the texts of all the music, including the English, omitted the text of Dunbar's "Alleluia, Amen." The reason, the performance revealed, is that the title is also the complete text. It may be the most elaborate setting of a two-word text in the repertoire, particularly the long and varied "Alleluia" section, which explores virtually every way to set that word to music.

Other composers on the program ranged from the prolific and popular Anonymous to Sergei Rachmaninoff (his ethereal "The Lord's Prayer") to those pillars of Renaissance music Arcadelt, Tallis, Viadana and Senfl, whose "Te Deum" was a climax of the concert. The performers had nine highly distinctive voices, which balanced and blended perfectly, aided by the church's lively acoustics.

-- Joseph McLellan

Bel Cantanti

The St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, at 16th and Newton NW, is hardly an ideal venue for opera; the lighting is dim, and the reverberation becomes a problem above mezzo-forte. So why would anyone go there to see a performance of "Rigoletto"?

Perhaps for Verdi's great melodies and tragically ironic plot, or because the price is reasonable. But primarily one goes in hopes of seeing and hearing future stars. That hope was justified Sunday night when Bel Cantanti gave a semi-staged (costumes and stage action but no scenery) performance of "Rigoletto."

The cast was well-coached and, with one exception, sang well, from Nemeh Azzam in the title role down to Alice Dillon in the walk-on role of a page. But three cast members showed particular promise. Rigoletto is a challenging role, musically, theatrically and psychologically, but Azzam had it completely mastered. He projected the personality, outwardly obnoxious and inwardly conflicted, in fine detail. His long Act 2 monologue, climaxing with the "Cortigiani" outburst, had strong impact, and he sang throughout with rich tone and fine control.

Also notable were the Gilda of Cynthia Farbman, particularly an exquisite "Caro Nome," and the Duke, sung by Lucas Tannous with a fine swagger in "La donna e mobile." An exception to the general vocal excellence was Mike Malovic (Sparafucile), who sounded as though he had a serious throat infection.

The orchestral music was supplied, at the piano, by company founder and director Katerina Souvorova, a pianist of international stature and a vocal coach whose credentials include the Bolshoi Opera and several American universities. Her company is still new, small and, no doubt, financially challenged, but this production showed a serious, focused orientation, high ambition and significant potential.

-- Joseph McLellan