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Stars are Born

Kulas Hall, The Cleveland Institute of Music
02/23/2011 -  & February 24, 25, 26, 2011
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La finta giardiniera
Kevin Simmons/Michael John Talerico (The Mayor of Lagonero), Samantha Renea Gossard (Ramiro), Alexandra Schiano/Anjin Stewart-Funai (Sandrina), Mark Wanich, John Gray Watson (Nardo), April Martin/Claire Connelly (Serpetta), Laura Anne Valles/Catheryne Shuman (Arminda), Nathanael Hein/Oswaldo Iraheta (Count Belfiore)
John Simmons (harpsichord continuo), CIM Orchestra, Harry Davidson (conductor)
David Bamberger (director), Dave Brooks (set & lighting designer), Alison Garrigan (costume, wig & makeup designer)

C. Shuman & O. Iraheta (© Leigh-Ann Dennison)

La finta giardiniera was written by the eighteen year old Mozart and is rarely performed today. The plot is thin and totally inane, the characters one dimensional, the music unmemorable and it goes on far too long. Whether performed in German, or Italian (as it was at CIM), it has little to recommend it. David Bamberger, in this edited version claimed to have “tightened the story, eliminated repetitive dialogue and kept the very best of the score”. In the program notes his reference to the character, Sandrina, as a “feminist” is puzzling. Is this is the same young woman who spends more than a year in disguise chasing after a man who stabbed her during a lover’s quarrel, and then ran off leaving her for dead. Feminist? I hardly think so. Silly? Definitely. She has none of the delightful charm of Susanna, or the sweetness of Zerlina or smarts of Despina, she simply occupies space. With that at the center, little wonder that this piece of fluff has been overlooked; we’re used to opera plots being illogical, but this one is terrible on so many levels that you feel caught in a revolving door with no exit in sight. If, as claimed, this opera without the cuts was “too long, and too often, tedious”, then the shortened version was not only both of those but terribly confusing as well. Judging by audience comments and attrition, this staging needs to go back to the drawing board, since those who remained for all of the 3 ½ hour performance were universally perplexed and exhausted. I attended multiple times so as to see both casts and give the opera a chance to grow on me. It didn’t, but the performers were worth the effort.

When one attends an opera given by students, even at a top conservatory, it is to be expected that there will be varying levels of competency, but every now and then, a glimpse of rare talent can be had. Such was the case at CIM, especially in the Thursday/Saturday cast. American audiences remember the name Catheryne Shuman, for this young woman will be a major force to be reckoned within the next decade. As Arminda, a lady used to getting her way, Ms. Shuman was in turn commanding, coquettish and cunning, manipulating her fan as easily as she turned the hearts of Ramiro and the Count. Her huge voice, which could have easily filled a house three times the size of Kulas Hall, possesses crystalline clarity in the upper register, a lovely rounded tone in the middle and a well-supported, full lower range. Had I not read her biography, I would have thought that a seasoned professional has been brought in for this role as Ms. Shuman’s possesses the acting chops of one much more experienced and a natural stage presence that draws the eye in any group. A worthy match for her was Oswaldo Iraheta, a young tenor just transitioning up from the baritone repertoire. The swaggering and blustering role of Count Belfiore served as a platform for his comedic skills while his voice grew even more perfect as the evening progressed. He has the potential to be a great Puccini tenor in years to come. I felt privileged to have been present to see these two singers at the beginning of what will surely be spectacular careers. In the alternate cast, their younger counterparts in the roles, Laura Anne Valles and Nathanael Hein, were fun and more than capable.

I must also praise the yeoman efforts of mezzo soprano Samantha Renea Gossard as Ramiro. Again, this young woman has stage presence to spare and a voice that took command from the initial ensemble piece, continued through her two solo arias and was still going strong in the final scene. This would have been quite a feat had she just sung her two scheduled performances, but due to illness Ms. Gossard stepped in for the additional shows and was equally brilliant in each. Again, one can expect to see much more of her on larger stages in the future.

In the thankless part of Sandrina, Alexandra Schiano was lovely and has a sweet tone, but needs work on her Italian diction and projection; in the alternate cast, Anjin Stewart-Funai was funny enough to tie the “crazy” bits together and has a very pretty voice. The nonsensical mad scene she shared with Mr. Iraheta was a challenge, at best, but it worked well for this pair. Ms. Stewart-Funai seemed tense and ill at ease during the first act; I later learned that she had just a very few weeks to prepare the role. In light of that and hearing the vast amount of recitative the part required, she did an excellent job and is to be commended for her efforts. As Nardo, Sandrina’s servant who is also incognito, Mark Wanich displayed a robust baritone and left me hoping to hear him as Rossini’s eponymous Barbiere someday, while John Watson turned in a solid, pleasant performance as well, albeit with some pitch problems. The role of the Podestá of Lagonero is a comedic scene stealer. Both Kevin Simmons and John Michael Talerico (alternate cast) were fine in that area and provided the light relief that was much needed to distract from the general sense of confusion in several scenes. The mayor’s manipulative housemaid, Serpetta, was sung by April Martin (alternate cast) and Claire Connelly. The younger Ms. Martin, a true soubrette, was better integrated into her cast and worked off of the others in ensemble fashion, while Ms. Connelly played more to the audience and showed a sharper edge to her portrayal of the character.

Students from CIM made up the twenty nine piece pit orchestra. Harry Davidson led them to produce a very Germanic-style sound, which was precisely what was called for. Sets and costumes were beautiful and entirely appropriate for the period while the lighting, the equal of any professional production, created just the right mood.

La finta giardiniera will never be a popular opera, but it serves a purpose as an ensemble vehicle for developing voices. As such, the young singers of the Cleveland Institute of Music did an excellent job with what they were given to work with and gave their all to provide very entertaining performances.

Suzanne Torrey



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