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Bel Canto Magic in Philadelphia

Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center
01/29/2010 -  and 30 January, 2 February 2010
Vincenzo Bellini: Norma (Acts 1 [complete] and 2 [excerpts])
Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore (Act 4)

Ryan Kuster (Oroveso), Noah Van Niel (Pollione), Sean Arnold (Flavio), Angela Meade (Norma), Olivia Vote (Adalgisa), Corinne Schaefer (Clotilde), John Viscardi (Ruiz), Michelle B. Johnson (Leonora), Jeffrey Halili (Manrico), Alex Lawrence (Conte di Luna), Margaret Mezzacappa (Azucena)
Christofer Macatsoris (music director and conductor)

A. Meade (© Devon Cass)

The Academy of Vocal Arts offered a program of “Operatic Masterpieces” in its annual concert opera appearance in the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center. No operatic ensemble can perform either the first act of Bellini’s Norma or the fourth act of Verdi’s Il Trovatore without two powerhouse sopranos to sing Norma and Leonora. AVA brought to the Perelman Theater’s stage a pair of outstanding artists, Angela Meade (Norma) and Michelle B. Johnson (Leonora).

Meade has been winning vocal competitions – including the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions – with her nuanced and elegant interpretation of “Casta diva.” Bellini’s encyclopedic heroine requires much more than the lovely voice and the command of the long, lyrical line to sing Norma’s cavatina. Meade supplied it all in an astonishing performance. At her first entrance, she arrested attention with her powerful declamation of “Sediziose voci.” Her voice rang out with thrilling impact as it cut through the air. She caught the grandeur of Bellini’s recitative and then traced the long lines of “Casta diva” in a flow of limpid, pure sound. Her plush-toned soprano opened up with unstinting power in the climaxes. Meade capped Norma’s entrance scena with a masterful account of the cabaletta, crowned with an imperious high C. In the taxing duet with Adalgisa, Meade’s opulent soprano was joined by the attractive, well-schooled mezzo-soprano of Olivia Vote. The two singers traded one long-breathed phrase after another. Meade ended the first act with a poised and powerful account of the trio. Her voice blazed out the high Cs in “Oh non tremare” before she capped the scene with a huge high D. In two excerpts from the second act – “Dormono entrambi” and “Mira, o Norma” – she displayed her command of Bellini’s long, limpid vocal lines and showed her polished technical schooling. Meade will sing the complete opera at the Caramoor Festival in the summer.

AVA’s cast featured young singers with less weighty voices than usual. Ryan Kuster sang urgently in Oroveso’s “Ite sul colle.” Noah Van Niel’s tenor lacks the ideal weight of sound and the dark coloration for Pollione’s challenging first-act cavatina, but he sang with blandishing grace in the duet with Adalgisa and made a secure, firm-toned impression in the final trio. Vote earned an ovation for her Adalgisa which blended well with Meade’s Norma in their scenes together. Sean Arnold’s forceful Flavio and Corinne Schaefer’s assured Clotilde rounded out the cast. Christofer Macatsoris shaped a lithe but forceful account of Bellini’s score. He underpinned the singing with pliant rhythms and carefully molded the accompaniments. Macatsoris also caught the sweep of Verdi’s music in the final act of Il Trovatore.

From her first entrance – an urgently sung “Vanne... lasciami” – Johnson commanded attention with the impact of her singing. Here is a true Verdi voice – dark in quality and intensely focused, capable of floating luminous pianissimi and also expanding effortlessly to full-voiced fortes. She also commands a powerful chest voice that opens up fearlessly in the low-lying phrases. Johnson traced the long melodic arcs of “D’amor sull’ ali rosee” intently but surely. In the “Miserere,” she colored Leonora’s urgent phrases with dark despair and then sailed confidently through both verses of “Tu vedrai.” She was rewarded with cheers and sustained applause from the audience.

AVA alumnus Jeffrey Halili took over Manrico after illness forced both of AVA’s tenors to withdraw from the performance. On barely a day’s notice, he learned the role. His attractive tenor proved a bit light-toned but he opened up impressively in the final scene. Alex Lawrence (Conte di Luna) also proved rather light weight, but he sang with vocal polish in the long duet with Leonora. Margaret Mezzacappa (Azucena) dominated the final scene. Etching the music with the brazen tones of a genuine Verdi mezzo, she sang with lyrical grace in “Ai nostri monti” and trumpeted out the Gypsy’s exultant outcries at the end of the act. John Viscardi was the effective Ruiz.

Robert Baxter



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