Opera, and opera outreach, is important. The first point of contact for any prospective opera lover is the grassroots artistic effort; made available in their community. When we as the arts community come together to put on concerts for audiences to enjoy, it is a great opportunity and privilege to be able to do so. They don’t have to be large productions, either. Simple operations where there’s a voice, a piano, and an audience, there too you can find great art. I have experienced it in my hometown, with the, mostly student-run, concerts of Opera On Tap. These shoestring budget companies who put every single dime, and then some, back into their performers. So when I review Fusion Theatre’s offering of opera highlights from three Italian favorites, that is the perspective from which I am reviewing.
At the Opera Center today, Fusion mounted a production that highlighted two singers and a pianist in an intimate, minimally staged and costumed style. The repertory was rather ambitious, if not unrelenting, for even the most seasoned of vocal performers. The first half of the concert was comprised of highlights from Madama Butterfly and Aïda; the second half was from the inimitable Tosca.
Tenor Byron Singleton began the show by singing Pinkerton’s first aria “Amore o Grillo” (Love or whim). He has a well produced sound, and fairly good control in the middle, up through the passaggio between registers. It has a nice brightness, but with a fair amount of depth. While the voice may not be suited for some of the roles on display tonight as a career, it was more than capable enough to meet the challenges in this setting. His acting was earnest, and one felt the sense of ease in his movements and gestures.
It’s not uncommon for companies to want to offer these big sings to audiences, because they are lovely, memorable melodies. My qualm here was that he had to keep singing all of the most difficult passages of the big Italian repertory; all night. Injudicious tenors (and believe me, I am counted among them) relish the opportunity to sing into these arias like rock anthems.
Note that what makes this repertory so big is the size of the orchestra. Absent the orchestra, I think it is important for tenors to give themselves permission to sing it in their comfortable dynamic intensity. Like so many caught in the trap before, gunning it for the duration of the evening in this type of music can lead to a straining at the very top, and an unease in more nuanced passages at softer dynamics. This happened to him in a few key spots at the end of the concert (such as in the more furtive passages of e lucevan le stelle), and understandably so. That being said, he has a fine instrument, and I would love to hear more of him; especially in Dichterliebe, which was listed in his biography.
Eilin O’Dea was having a little bit of a rough night. For whatever reasons, she seemed to be struggling with low blood sugar, or some kind of sickness that caused her to have to disengage and walk-off stage in the middle of the Aida/Radames duet. It was apparent from the inception of the evening that something on the voice felt a little bit weary.
The majority of the singing that a spinto soprano is going to have to do in these large Verdi operas, lies a bit lower in the voice that a normal lyric soprano. The voice absolutely has to retain the breath pressure connection, and include a sufficient amount of squillo (resonance); to be carried up through the more swelling, romantic passages. Her voice lacked too much of that connection. Her vibrato was unevenly distributed in that register, and sometimes even absent. When Eilin ascended up through her medium-high range, however, she really projected a sizable, resonant, impressive sound. Sometimes though, in her enthusiasm with that sound, she overshot, and there were intonation issues throughout the evening as a result. It became kind of like a tale of two voices.
Diction was also an issue here, more with the soprano than the tenor. Though there were no subtitles to convey the meaning of the text, proper attention to Italian diction lends so much to the flavor and the authenticity of the style.
The pianist Brian Holman conducted the entire endeavor with grace and class. It’s no small feat to accompany Italian opera arias. There is this constant game that they have to play with how much rubato to let singers have, and how much of the reins should be taken in. He had no reservations, and the scenes ran smoothly, cleanly, and with musical intention; one to the next. He was vocally opportune, too, with some of the bit parts throughout the Tosca finale; which was fun and added a nice touch.
That analysis may have been daunting, and there is a lot for this company to unpack; with regard to the programming and preparation for these concerts. That being said, I think it is vitally important that we support companies like Fusion Theatre. Anyone can have a less than stellar night, but there were some really bright spots to be found on offer tonight. Take as many of them as you can, dust them off, and then try to replicate more of that for the next time around.