Maryland Lyric Opera leads off with double bill of blood-and-guts verismo

Sun Sep 15, 2019 at 12:59 pm
Mark Delavan and Susan Bullock performed in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” presented in concert by Maryland Lyric Opera Saturday night. Photo: Julian Thomas

The Washington area is burgeoning with smaller opera companies carving out their niches. One such group, Maryland Lyric Opera, was founded in 2014 as a training institute for young opera singers. 

The company opened its new season Saturday night with a double-bill of Puccini’s Il Tabarro and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, performed in concert with full orchestra in the Music Center at Strathmore.

The combination of these two verismo operas, both involving the murder of an unfaithful wife’s lover, made for a roller-coaster evening of high-octane emotions. Veteran singers took the leading roles in a mixed cast that also featured some alumni of the company’s educational program.

At the top of Il Tabarro was the snarling Michele of baritone Mark Delavan, last seen at Washington National Opera in La forza del destino in 2013. A delicious villain of gruff menace, Delavan used his large frame and imposing voice to loom and threaten. He seemed entirely credible murdering Giorgetta’s lover in Il Tabarro and killing Turiddu as the jealous Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana. Singing both of these challenging roles in a single evening was an achievement of impressive vocal force.

Also appearing in both casts was Allegra De Vita, who extended her list of chameleonic accomplishments in opera roles in the Washington area in recent years. A distinguished alumna of the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program, the Connecticut-born mezzo-soprano made her MDLO debut as a raucous La Frugola, the nutty Parisian scavenger in Il Tabarro. After a change of gown and hairstyle, her severe Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria was a marvel of character shift vocally and physically.

Jill Gardner’s more demure soprano left her Giorgetta sometimes covered by the large orchestra at the major climaxes in Il Tabarro. The Italian diction of both Gardner and tenor Yi Li, who struggled at times as her Luigi, left something to be desired. Li hit a wall by the time of the duet with Gardner about their hometown of Belleville, running out of steam in the series of emphatic high notes.

Jonathan Burton came to local attention as a sensational Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West at Castleton Festival in 2013, a role he reprised last year with MDLO. His shining, incisive tenor impressed from the moment his Turiddu made his off-stage serenade. That vocal bravado matched the character’s ridiculous ego, which provoked considerable laughter among the audience. His swaggering Brindisi after the orchestral Intermezzo was a memorable rodomontade.

Soprano Susan Bullock could not quite match Burton in volume, but her Santuzza was strong and sympathetic, as in her rendition of “Voi lo sapete.” The British soprano last appeared at WNO in Elektra in 2008, and she has become an MDLO favorite. Young Korean soprano Joowon Chae was a saucy foil to Bullock as Lola, with a promising and resonant tone.

Louis Salemno, music director of MDLO, conducted the large orchestra with old-school confidence. Out of concern for balance with the singers, he placed his musicians in a pit-style seating, familiar to him from various theaters where he has conducted in Europe. The strings were arranged to his left, with the singers in front of them, while the winds and brass on his right faced across the stage rather than directly out at the audience. Even that concession did not prevent the orchestra from occasionally overwhelming the singers.

The playing was quite accomplished, some intonation issues in winds and brass aside, lush and muscled in the lavish choral scenes of Cavalleria especially. The massive chorus, filling the seats above the stage and now under the direction of Steven Gathman, delivered a mighty wall of sound. With the company planning to stage operas at Strathmore, as early as later this season, the star of Maryland Lyric Opera will hopefully continue to rise.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday, with the soprano and tenor leads switching operas. mdlo.org


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