With professional opera companies all over the country struggling for life these days, the University of Maryland Opera Studio’s ability to mount a pair of major operas for a week’s run may seem like an embarrassment of riches. But the university has the “deep pockets” of a fine stable of singers associated with the studio; enough strong young orchestral musicians to man two capable orchestras; a staff of conductors, directors and designers committed to such undertakings; and a fine smallish opera house (the Smith Center’s Kay Theatre) to perform in. The pair that opened this past weekend, Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” on Friday and Mozart’s “The Abduction From the Seraglio” on Saturday, exhibited some of the unevenness to be expected from a cast of singers with quite different amounts of experience, but also much of the freshness that comes from young energetic artists early in their careers.
The “Barber” never quite got off the ground. Even with a fine and exuberant Figaro, sung by tenor David Blalock (who, in his bright blue lounge suit, looked like a refugee from “Guys and Dolls”), and a Rosina, sung by soprano Monica Soto-Gil, who acted deliciously and nailed the coloratura gloriously, the show dragged. In part this was because of the wooden acting of some in the cast, but in larger part, it was due to unimaginative directing that had singers standing around with not much to do. Even the opening scene, which so many directors have exploited so delightfully, was, here, merely a protracted exercise in arranging a chorus to stand under a balcony.
Joseph Shadday (a rather stolid Count), Andrew Adelsberger (a professorial Bartolo, generally above the fray), Jarrod Lee (Basilio, the Music Master) and Alex DeSocio (Fiorello) sang well, particularly in ensembles and most particularly in the patter songs that Rossini sprinkles liberally throughout his operas — but none of them lit up the stage. The orchestra, under the direction of conductor Miah Im, was generally solid, with special kudos to pianist (or in this case, fortepianist) Sun Ha Yoon, whose stylish and idiomatically pristine realization of recitative accompaniment was one of the high points of the evening. Pat Diamond directed.
Saturday’s production of “Abduction,” however, was a delight from start to finish. From the opening toy boat that goes down in a sea of filmy waves with man and servant swimming off in different directions to seek shore, to the giant (a truly big) henchman, Osmin, condemned to study the teachings of Nietzsche (this production’s alternative to the original’s “barbarism of Islam”), the show danced, both musically and dramatically. The libretto (with its spoken recitatives) moved seamlessly back and forth between the original German and English. Even the costumes spanned several centuries: Belmonte and his servant, Pedrillo, were dressed as members of a 1920s country-club set; their kidnapped girlfriends, Konstanze and Blonde, as ladies of a 19th-century court; Osmin and Selim as swashbuckling pirates; and the onstage orchestra as a bunch of powdered-wig Mozarts.
Bridgette Gan, a gorgeous Konstanze, has the kind of lovely and flexible voice that can navigate intricate coloratura one minute and deliver a subtle put-down the next. CarrieAnne Winter was a perky Blonde, able to fell an overly randy Osmin with a single well-placed high D. Aaron Ingersoll’s Osmin was a goofy combination of puppy dog and menace, and he has the kind of resonant low bass notes that can make the air vibrate. Neither Nicholas Houhoulis as Belmonte nor Peter J. Burroughs as Pedrillo acted as well as they sang and, in the non-singing role of the Pirate Bassa Selim, Joseph Thornhill might have projected a lot more personality.
The orchestra, conducted by James Ross, played with considerable rhythmic vitality, and director Nick Olcott managed every detail with a splendid sense of comic timing and artistic invention.
“Barber” will be performed Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; “Abduction” on Friday and Sunday. Reinthaler is a freelance writer.