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New Opera’s ‘Così’ brings down the house at Williams, Recap: Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”

The Classical Beat
New Opera’s ‘Così’ brings down the house at Williams
By Stephen Dankner
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Occasionally a concert comes along with hardly any fanfare, featuring mostly unknown performers, and just leaves you stunned by the talent in evidence. Such was the case last Friday, when The New Opera - a fledgling Williamstown-based opera company - presented Act One of Mozart’s dramma giocoso “Così fan tutte” in concert at Chapin Hall on the Williams College campus.

In 1785, Mozart collaborated with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, poet to the Viennese court theater, to create “The Marriage of Figaro.” Together they produced three operas - “Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Così.” The last had only five performances, due to the sudden death of Emperor Joseph II; all theaters were closed to pay respect to the illustrious ruler and musical patron.

“Così fan tutte” has had a checkered past, due not to Mozart’s score (which is glorious) but owing to its cynical treatment of love and of the attempts of exploitive men to manipulate women. The high-flown lyricism of the score, however, which can be found in every bar of music, removes much of the bite of the story and idealizes courtship and fickle romance.

The plot is not so far removed from today’s fanzines: Who’s Jessica Simpson currently dating? Why did Tom break up with Nicole, and what caused Brad to leave Jennifer? If Mozart - always a man of the theater, with a keen eye and ear for what was current - were alive today, he’d probably be a soap opera addict and read the supermarket tabloids. Plenty of grist for dramma giocoso in today’s pop culture. Come on, admit it, you have seen “Elimi-Date” on late night TV, right?

The New Opera’s production values were, as promised by co-director Keith Kibler in an Advocate interview last week, very high. In a concert version of an opera, the audience has to imagine practically everything; there are no sets, no staging and no acting - only singers with orchestra.

The singers were wonderful, their youthful voices full of exuberance and charm. Particularly impressive were soprano Margaret Bragle, who played Fiordiligi, and Blythe Gaissert Levitt, mezzo, who sang the role of Dorabella. The security and authority of their singing, as well as the characterizations of their roles, were convincing - so much so that, after a brief while, I was transported by the music alone.

Also excellent were Alan Schneider and Harry Baechtel in the roles of Ferrando and Guglielmo. Kibler, who sang the role of the nefarious old “philosopher” Don Alfonso, was rock-solid and clearly the vocal and overall musical anchor for the production, inspiring the cast to rise to his level of distinction and brilliance. The arias, duets, trios, quintet and sextet were all sung beautifully and were accompanied with great sensitivity by the small orchestra.

This chamber orchestra, under the authoritative command of co-director Richard Giarusso, sounded particularly delightful. The music was led with a broad range of expression - at times passionate, often tender and coquettish. Graceful and delicate, Robin Kibler’s harpsichord accompaniments in the recitatives were finely nuanced. These transitional passages are the musical connective tissue and carry the continuity of the opera’s plot. In less skilled hands, they can often sound like filler. Her performance raised them to a high musical level.

Bravo to all involved in this production of “Così fan tutte;” it was an unqualified success. The audience thought so, too, giving the cast and orchestra a standing ovation.

An unlikely footnote: Da Ponte (1749-1838) immigrated to America in 1805 and was appointed professor of Italian literature at Columbia College in New York. He is buried in Brooklyn.

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The Classical Beat
Recap: Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”
By Stephen Dankner
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The New Opera’s concert performance of highlights from Richard Strauss’ comic opera masterpiece “Der Rosenkavalier” last Friday in Chapin Hall at Williams was a rapturous, stunning success. Conductor Steven D. Bodner masterfully shaped the music with a feeling of pliancy, and the playing by the orchestra was the best I’ve heard locally in years. The results were astounding, given only three rehearsals.

Featured soloists Blythe Gaissert in the role of Octavian, Charlotte Dobbs as the Marschallin and Rachel Schutz as Sophie were all phenomenal - their youthful, exuberant voices filling Chapin Hall with washes of pure melody. Alan Schneider excelled as “an Italian singer” and Keith Kibler’s few moments onstage as Herr von Faninal was a star turn, adding depth and profundity with his effortless, warm bass.

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