Miami Lyric Opera offers variable verismo with “Cav” and “Suor”

By David Fleshler

Miami Lyric Opera presented its 90th performance Saturday night, an impressive achievement for a low-budget opera company that few expected to survive since its founding in 2004.

Yet the company has established its niche in the South Florida arts scene, performing rarely heard works as well as standard repertoire, with reasonable ticket prices and often excellent singing.

Saturday’s performance at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami was mixed, and the company has put on better shows of the two short operas on the program: Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

Mascagni’s work should be perfect for the company: an operatic standard with the classic Italian themes of jealousy, vendetta, Mother and the Catholic church. Yet despite distinguished performances in key roles, the production lacked the straight-to-the-heart punch it can have in the best performances.

After a brief prelude, the opera begins with an off-stage aria from Turiddu singing of his love for Lola, the girl to whom he had hoped to return after his army service. The tenor Lievens Castillo gave an account full of longing and pain, with a searing performance of the climactic phrase in which he says he wouldn’t enter heaven if she weren’t there. Throughout the opera, up to his moving farewell to his mother, his strongly focused voice, with its intense upper register, conveyed youthful longing and passion.

As Santuzza, the woman who loves Turiddu, the soprano Nathalie Avila brought a richly expressive voice to her duets with her lover and his mother. Although her widening vibrato in the upper register lost focus, she sang with sumptuous tone, creating a vivid portrait of wounded love.

The bass-baritone Armando Naranjo made a fine Alfio, the swaggering wine carter who married Lola when Turiddu was away. He gave a robust account of Il cavallo scalpita and throughout the opera exuded the amiable menace of a man whose wife you wouldn’t dare glance at (unless, apparently, you’re Turiddu).

Clad in Italian widow’s black as Mama Lucia, the mezzo-soprano Emilia Acon conveyed compassion and hard-won wisdom, singing with a burnished gloss in her duets with Avila and Castillo. As Lola, the mezzo-soprano Lissette Jimenez sang a nicely phrased Fior di gaggiolo.

The orchestra, often a weak link in Miami Lyric productions, gave one of its best performances, under the energetic conducting of Jeffrey Eckstein. Winds played with great warmth in Mascagni’s lyric melodies, and the strings played with far more accuracy than in many previous performances, performing with dramatic sizzle under Eckstein’s direction. The only quibble was the Intermezzo, where he took the melody at a hurried pace that robbed it of its dignity and pathos. The chorus, adequate in much of the opera, was hopelessly muddy and indistinct in the church service.

Cavalleria Rusticana is traditionally paired with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci for a double-bill of Southern Italian homicide. Yet Miami Lyric’s decision to program Suor Angelica makes a lot of sense, allowing the sexually charged passion of Mascagni’s work to contrast with Puccini’s story of a woman banished to a convent who takes a desperate measure to see her son again and is rewarded with a miracle.

Although the set in Cavalleria was a workmanlike series of backdrops to recreate a Sicilian village, the scenic design for Suor Angelica was far more impressive—-colonnades of dark stones with a grotto at one side.

As Suor Angelica, the soprano Jacqueline Quirk gave an impassioned performance, transforming herself in the course of a few minutes from a humble, obedient nun to a woman whose yearning to see her son would lead to a terrible, self-sacrificing decision. In Senza mamma, sung to her dead child, she gave a glowing depiction of maternal love and sorrow. And in her final moments, after she realizes that she has committed a terrible sin in an attempt to return to him, she exuded human anguish and desperate hope.

The ensemble cast of a dozen nuns was excellent, in contrast to the work of the chorus in the first opera, with the women singing in church bell-clear tones as they went about the business of the convent.

The idyllic scenes of the nuns and their simple pleasures ends abruptly with a series of brooding chords that announce the arrival of Zia Principessa, Suor Angelica’s aunt, who wants her to sign a paper involving money and tells the nun her son is dead. The mezzo-soprano Lissette Jimenez (Lola in the first half), gave a chilling performance as this icy old woman, singing a grim Nel silenzio di quei raccoglimenti that climaxed with a hair-raising cry of the words “Atone, atone.”

But the final moments of the opera lacked the sense of catharsis that can attend the best performances, in part due to the way the scene was staged. Quirk had to look away from the audience to see the Virgin Mary appear with her child, so that her transformation from anguished terror to joy in her final moments of life wasn’t even visible to the audience.

Miami Lyric Opera repeats the two operas 4 p.m. Sunday at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Miami Lyric Opera offers variable verismo with “Cav” and “Suor””

  1. Posted Sep 22, 2013 at 10:11 pm by Jeff Haller

    Beautifully written review. Naturally today felt much more secure. We brought 7 people who all knew at least a little. They were hynotized.

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Sun Sep 22, 2013
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