Commonwealth Lyric Theater stuffed Brighton’s Center Makor with 75 choristers (7-70 years of age), 21 featured singers and an orchestra of 20 for its third annual Gala Concert on Sunday. The former synagogue was also packed with about 1,000 Russian and Ukrainian parents, grandparents, friends and fans.
The occasion celebrated the 200th birthday of Verdi with eight pleasing and familiar but strangely assorted of his arias, ensembles and choruses, while also elevating a Russian and a Ukranian who shared Verdi’s birth year.
After a very loud vibrating bell, a cross between a shofar and an electric angelus, overcame the resistance of the milling crowd some 20 minutes after the announced start, the presenters addressed us in Russian, Ukrainian and Italian, finally adding, “Don’t forget we’re in America, let’s speak English, and let’s bring together the Russian, Ukrainian, Italian and American communities.”
The Overture to Rusalka by A. Dargomyzhsky introduced the orchestra to the now quietly seated audience, but the playing also unfortunately sounded like the orchestra’s first encounter with the work. Despite how hard conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya appeared to labor to sell the score, the out-of-tune upper strings and general dishevelment did little to raise expectations for the evening. But throughout what followed, the ensemble did one thing well, it segued smoothly and quickly though not always inevitably into the next piece.
Alexander Prokhorov, bass-baritone as well as the company’s artistic director, made an appealing character of Melnick from Rusalka. His liquid Russian sound with some artful covering and darkening and lively stage manner quickly made us forget the deficiencies of the band. In a trio from the same opera, soprano Zhanna Alkhazova added her clean, unaffected and well-formed delivery. Tenor Jonathan Price contributed a quiet dignity that at first seemed scorebound, but his delivery did gain power.
In her best Carmen manner, replete with flamenco foot stompings, distinguished and lustrous soprano Oksana Krovytska gave us the last Dargomyzhsky segment, Laura’s aria from The Stone Guest.
One of the most successful and engaging scenes was surely the Duet of Radames and Amneris from Aida, in which two true singing actors owned the stage. Joanna Porackova is a great artist who can totally embody and project a tremendous variety of roles. As Amneris she was powerful without stridency and raging without loss of dignity. Tenor Adam Klein matched her for drama and attitude, and his instrument was fresh and bright.
Zhanna Alkhazova intoned Lenora’s aria from Il Trovatore with pleasant command, though her imploring hand and arm gestures seemed rather conventional. Her instrument was writ large and luminous, and her roulades and portamenti were creamy and smooth. If she delivered the lines, “If I will not live with him then I will die for him,” with a wink, then maybe it was Verdi’s fault.
Gears then shifted for two extended excerpts from Rigoletto. In the title role, the tallest and thinnest representation of the jester we have ever seen, and looking rather too much like the Fonz, Gabriel Manro nevertheless gave a strong and dramatic portrayal in a voice that finally warmed up and gave generously, but his business with the handkerchief was a bit distracting in a concert performance. The Gilda was executive director Olga Lisovskaya. She too was clearly a creature of the stage with a true Verdi style and a heroine’s heart. Like Manro, she held back nothing. The three courtiers, Larry, Moe, and Curly, actually I mean three excellent singers from the chorus who were unfortunately rather stiffly blocked, filled in the ensemble with excellent tone. The solos from the orchestra were distressingly mistuned, but when the forceful chorus and singers were in full cry, disbelief could be suspended.
Guess what came next? The “Anvil Chorus.” This was the moment everyone had waited for. Clearly the audience was aglow as the aisles filled with their offspring dressed as colorful gypsies in the Lucky 10 children’s chorus, and these kids can sing as well as costume. There appears to be no reticence in this community! The Azucena, mezzo-soprano Anne Byrne, rather too young and attractive for the role, was great, even though she was not the contralto Verdi expected. In addition to the enjoyment we had from her healthy bright and powerful tones we got an extra dollop—she looks a lot like Sargent’s Madame X and sported a dress which completed the illusion. Who needs a deranged child murderer in a family gala?
Porackova came back as a completely different character in voice and manner to complete the first half, dispatching “Preziosilla’s Song” from La Forza del Destino with technically perfect pizzicato spitfire. The Lucky 10 and CLT chorus’s combined to raise the decibel level for the finish.
An extended excerpt from Un ballo in maschera suffered most from the concert staging. Conventional party masks did not substitute for sets and movement.
In Alfredo’s duet with Violetta from La Traviata (Act I) the couple must have had absolute pitch, so little help did they receive from the strings. Giovanni Formisano had a real ping and an ardent tenor manner as Alfredo. Yelena Dudochkin’s Violetta was in fine voice, but a bit unsure what to do with the gigantic rosebud the director placed in her hand.
Next we came to the evening’s highlight. Veteran Metropolitan Opera bass, Stefan Szkafarowski lumbered onto the stage, convincing as a drunken Ukrainian peasant, and took the evening’s proceedings to an entirely different place—one no longer framed by a distancing proscenium arch. And sounding like the youngest man on the stage that evening, he sang with what was apparently fine Ukrainian enunciation in a honeyed and resonant voice which movingly traced the arc of the character from mere drunkenness to something deeper. New York City Opera diva Oksana Krovytska, a last minute substitute, gamely joined him as the harridan with a heart singing from memory and quite characterfully, despite a too-low key. Her engagement too was total. The three scenes from Hulak-Artemovsky’s Zaporozhets za Dunayem concluded as Adam Klein put across Andriy’s aria with great drama, voice, and heart. The orchestra must have spent a disproportionate amount of rehearsal time on these three numbers, because they actually made the music work. The opera has some real ethnic character and is not striving for European sophistication. We want to see it.
The evening ended with the repeated assertion, “Everyone has been duped.” The finale from Falstaff had ten principal artists onstage as well as the CLT chorus, and we got our money’s worth, despite the lyrics to the contrary.
The encore was the patriotic hymn “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco. Ten principal singers plus combined chorus and orchestra and a few singing souls in the audience brought down the virtual curtain to rhythmic applause.
Commonwealth Lyric Theater is a new kid in the neighborhood whose zeal to show off what they’ve got is enthusiastic in the extreme. Like any smorgasbord, or as the Russians call it винегрет (vinaigrette), this meal had some hit courses and some fillers. But it was almost constantly inspiring to see the multi-generational involvement this community offers its young company both in participation and support. We very much look forward to seeing what CLT does with Anton Rubenstein’s The Demon next June.