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American Arias in the Berkshires

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Caroline Worra (file photo)

The Berkshire Opera Festival is tooling up for its production of Don Pasquale next week, with the first of two opera-based recitals in the 1910 Barn at Hancock Shaker Village last Thursday evening entitled “Ain’t It a Pretty Night: Excerpts from America Opera.”  The locale, one of the Shaker buildings that until last year stored hay, seemed perfect as a recital hall, so a slightly elevated stage of modest size, with a piano to one side, and about 10 or 12 rows of chairs for the audience have replaced the bales.

On Thursday, a “modified pretty night” the audience gathered, walking from the entrance or riding an electric cart in the light rain to the barn some ways away. But once inside the barn door at the back, the space and the atmosphere, to say nothing of the clean acoustics, proved very fine.

Pianist Lynn Baker accompanied soprano Caroline Worra and tenor John Reiser in 14 solos and duets from American works going as far back as 1845 and ahead to 2017, representing many different musical styles and operas both serious and comic.

I was especially surprised to hear an excerpt from William Henry Fry’s Leonora, billed as the first opera written by an American (this is true if  one is referring to opera in the continental, Italian style, but there were earlier works composed on the model of English ballad operas). Fry was a Philadelphia music critic and an active composer and promoter of American music. Leonora, based on Bulwer-Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons, was generally in the style of Bellini. The he composed it in English (Worra sang “Oh, moment too enchanting!”), he suffered the indignity of having to hear a revival in 1858 sung in Italian, because, presumably, the term “opera” meant something in that language. Worra had the clean coloratura and a firmly projected voice to send Leonora’s aria out into the hall and right out the barn door at the back.

That was the only 19th-century work on the program. The next oldest piece was from John Philip Sousa’s final stage work, an operetta called The Glass-Blowers (1909), a duet “In the dimness of twilight.” Another operetta selection was the famous tenor “Serenade (Overhead the moon is beaming)” from Romberg’s The Student Prince (1925), the longest-running show of the 1920s. Riesen’s tenor recalls in its firmness the singer whom most people think of even today when they hear the song, Mario Lanza, who recorded the score for the film version in the 1950s; and his diction was splendid clear.

Pianist Lynn Baker

Both singers have experience on the opera stage. Worra boasts a repertory of some 90 roles, including premieres in Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur; her performance is preserved on a highly regarded recording, as was her recording of the lead role in Stephen Hartke’s The Greater Good, or The Passion of Boule de Suif. She has sung with opera companies all over the country. John Riesen has sung the role of Young Thompson in Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, as well as leading roles in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Bernstein’s Candide and West Side Story, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, as well as performances in a number of regional companies. He recently completed his second season with the Shreveport Opera, where he sang Father Grenville in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, and lead tenor roles in HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. And before turning to opera, he reached All-State and All-Region honors for baseball.

The first part of the program came with more recent operas. Worra sang the aria that has become the best-known in A Streetcar Named Desire by the recently-deceased Andre Previn, wnd John Riesen followed it with the aria “I see” by Greenhorn (Ishmael) in Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. The first half ended with two numbers from Samuel Barber’s Vanessa: “Do not utter a word,” which Vanessa sings with her back turned to the man she thinks is the great love of her life returned to hear after some years, to tell him that she doesn’t want him to see her if he is not sure he still loves her. The pair then sang the duo “Love has a bitter core, Vanessa.”

After intermission the program was mostly well-known recent operas, beginning with Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, the title aria for the entire program. Artistic director Brian Garmin explained that this choice was in tribute to the great soprano Phyllis Curtin, who sang the world premiere of the role at the New York City Opera in the 1950s and who lived many years after her retirement in nearby Great Barrington while serving for decades as an influential vocal coach at Tanglewood.

Though it is not so well known, The Tender Land is by Aaron Copland, one of the major creators of what came to be regarded as an American sound in his music of the 1930s and 1940s. The opera was composed just after mid-century, and the aria “I’m gettin’ tired of travelin’ through” is a gentle expression of hope for a new kind of life from a wandering man during the Depression.

The two least known of the contemporary operas (which I did not know at all) were represented in striking arias that will attract my attention if they should be presented again. Julian Grant’s opera with the long and curious title The Nefarious, Immoral, but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare deals with the need for cadavers for dissection in an early 19th-century medical school. The “nefarious enterprise” was a project of two men who simply murdered likely prospects to sell to the school. John Riesen sang “Ignorance is the curse of God.” Worra followed it with an aria sung by Older Alyce in Tim Cipullo’s Glory Denied: “He went through Hell.”

The final selections featured another composer with long-standing Tanglewood connections and world-wide popularity. John Riesen sang “Eldorado,” the deliciously absurd description of how Candide located Eldorado (“through a jungle fountain high up in a tree”), followed by a soaring duet on the aching closing music of West Side Story: “Somewhere.”

JOhn Reisen (file photo)

The pianist Lynn Baker accomplished heroic duty accompanying the singers with music that intended for orchestra and that therefore\ made challenging demands on any ten fingers.

By the time the recital ended, it really was a pretty night. The rain had stopped and the clouds parted to show a beautiful Berkshire nighttime as the members of the audience made their way back to the parking lot. As the program reminded us, there are many American operas that deserve consideration (indeed, many more than were heard here).

The Berkshire Opera Festival has scheduled a second recital program on Wednesday, August 14, at 7:30pm in Great Barrington, St. James Place. The program, “Savor the Sound: An Evening of Bel Canto,” moves closer to the featured opera of the season, Don Pasquale. The program will consist of the Big Three of bel canto, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The singers will be Deanne Breiwick and Pauline Swierczek, sopranos; Matthew Grille, tenor; Emmett O’Hanlon and Siddhart Dubey, baritones; Craig Calclough, bass-baritone; and Andrew Sun, piano.

The production of Don Pasquale, with the same singers as the bel canto recital, runs at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, on Saturday, August 24, at 1 PM; Tuesday, August 24 and Friday, August 30, at 7:30pm,

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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