Miami Lyric Opera opens season ambitiously with Bellini

By Lawrence A. Johnson

You have to give Raffaelle Cardone credit. Even in this parlous economy, the retired tenor-turned-impresario’s upstart Miami Lyric Opera is surviving and continues to fill an important role. The company opened its fifth season Thursday night at the Colony Theater with a challenging work, Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani.

The fledgling company has made small but steady progress every season, and Thursday night showed some upgrades, including a larger chorus, more fluid and professional stage direction, and, for the first time, projected English surtitles.

In Puritani, however, knowing the text can be a mixed blessing. The scenario is set in the English Civil War, circa 1640, with a tortuous love triangle set against the conflict between  Cromwell’s Roundheads and the Cavaliers who support the Stuart monarchy. Even by the implausible standards of bel canto opera, the motivations and actions are hard to swallow, with the heroine Elvira’s insanity arriving and departing like a rush-hour commuter train. Yet Puritani offers some of Bellini’s finest music, with six principal singers each getting an aria or two, and abundant duets, and quartets in the composer’s elegant lyrical style.

  MLO remains a company with rough edges and glitches. On Thursday they included a curtain that initially refused to rise completely, and a once-in-a-lifetime memory of a headset-wearing stagehand walking on midscene during Act 1 to remove a prompter’s lectern that had been left on stage.

Even with a larger chorus, seemingly filled out with students, the ensemble singing wasn’t appreciably improved. The two-dozen players crammed into the front of the pit-less venue did their best, but the microbial string section made Bellini’s scoring a work largely for brass and winds.

Still, it’s easier to bear such distractions when you know Cardone is working with a shoestring budget, and all involved are trying their best with limited resources. The tradeoff is that the company’s productions have a theatrical immediacy and a certain endearing, rough-edged charm that are often more compelling than performances dished out by companies that spend millions of dollars.

Guinevere Tiffin proved an admirable Elvira. She appeared short-breathed in some of Bellini’s long phrases and passed on some high notes, yet Tiffini displayed a clear, agile soprano with reserves of power. She handled the coloratura fireworks well, and showed a pure, radiant tone in the bel canto of Sai com’arde. Tiffin’s performance grew in depth and assurance as the evening continued and she was at her best in Elvira’s Act 2 mad scene conveying the mercurial mood-swings and delivering an impressive Qui la voce and Vien, diletto.

As Riccardo, house baritone Daniel Snodgrass brought an Italianate timbre and secure bel canto line to Ah, per sempre, as well as stirring intensity to the Suoni la trombre duet with the sturdy bass, Alvaro Ramirez, as Giorgio. Lisette Jimenez  was a solid presence as Enrichetta.

Cardone announced that Aurelio Gabaldon, the production’s Arturo, was suffering from bronchitis, which accounted for the Spanish tenor’s effortful and occasionally strangulated top C’s  and D’s. Otherwise, Gabaldon was a worthy hero, displaying a warmly lyrical style and pleasant tenor, with confident stage presence.

Aside from the corny opening tableau of three soldiers stalking the stage with lances and pointing them at the audience, Philip Church elevated the stage direction several notches, providing natural and unobtrusive blocking of the singers.  Except for burying the singers in a too-exuberant final scene, conductor Doris Lang Kosloff showed a sure feel for this repertoire, shaping the lines skillfully and bringing firm rhythmic vitality to Bellini’s martial music and the ensembles. The orchestra had its usual roughnesses, but the four horns showed surprising finesse in the overture, underlining the echoes of von Weber’s Der Freischutz and pre-echoes of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

Miami needs an alternative opera company and let’s hope that audiences and aficionados will continue to support Cardone’s small company and allow it to thrive for many years to come.

Bellini’s I Puritani will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach with Beverly Coulter in the role of Elvira. 305-674-1040.;

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Fri Mar 27, 2009
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