A night to remember

Fra Noi (IL)-November, 2000
Author: John Rizzo.
Section: ARTS & CULTURE

Before our final installment in the Life of Puccini series, which will appear with the Opera Quiz results next month, I am very happy to report some wonderful news about opera in the Chicago area. As regular readers of this column know by now, I have not been all that pleased with the contemporary state of opera production and performance offered by the top opera houses in general and specifically the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Only the venerable Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, with its extensive schedule dominated by the Italian classics, maintains a more-or-less traditional approach to résumé and staging. It also features the most prominent singers available year after year.

So where does that leave all the many opera lovers in Chicago, who would so enjoy hearing something they really want to hear sung by first-class singers in live performance? Right now, quite honestly, it’s still fairly tough to experience real opera with real singers around here, but I truly believe that this situation is beginning to change for the better. We got a taste of this at the recent Festa Italia at the Casa, with a superb offering by the Botti Opera Showcase. Also we have heard some good things from the annual Li Puma Foundation awards dinner, and the Bel Canto Society, spearheaded by the Monastero family, has been turning up some truly outstanding talent that is displayed in all its glory at a number of regular functions. (Watch right here in the near future for in-depth coverage of these events!)

And then there was the third annual “Pasta, Puccini and More” private gala hosted by Jasper and Marian Sanfilippo on September 24. I have rarely enjoyed live opera as much as on this wonderful evening. Of course, this was opera in concert version, so we did not have costumes or sets, but we did have brilliant singing, easily the match, and at times even surpassing, of what you are likely to hear at Lyric. The lion’s share of the credit for putting this magical evening together goes to Joe Relle, a retired buyer at Dominick’s, and a formidable and knowledgeable champion of Italian opera.

I can just imagine the blood, sweat and tears that it cost Joe to make such a dream a reality. Nor could he relax and enjoy the concert like everyone else – until it was over. Sitting behind him, I could not help but notice how much he was a part of the show. With almost every musical nuance, Joe had an appropriate type of body language – if a pitch sagged flat he raised up in his chair, when the remotely positioned chorus went temporarily out of sync with the soloists Joe leveled a sharp glare in their direction and willed then~ back in time. Rather than being distracted by this, it just made me feel even better about everything to see someone take opera so seriously. And when you consider that he not only assembled and rehearsed the singers and musicians, but that her also developed the résumé and produced the programs, his enormous contribution to the overwhelming success of the concert just has to be deeply appreciated. Great job, Joe!

As for the performers, all experienced professionals, they displayed the highest level of musical artistry. The soprano, Rose Guccione, was magnificent. Not only did she turn in an exciting and virtually flawless vocal performance, but she projected a modest and unassuming stage presence that is absolutely charming. With no wasted movements or gestures except those in perfect taste, nothing distracted from the music to which she gave everything. She began with “O mio babbino caro”, an excellent first number as it gently established her range and immediately won her audience. This is not the most technically demanding aria, but is very beautiful and it is so familiar that anything less than perfection here could have added more pressure on delivering her subsequent pieces. But she sang this little gem purely and lyrically and thereby neatly set the stage for the more weighty offerings that followed. Of these, like “Vissi d’arte”, “Mi chiamano Mimi” and Liu’s haunting “Signore, ascolta”, it is hard to pick a favorite because they were all sung with perfect intonation, great feeling and ultra-smooth phrasing.

The stunning quality of Ms. Guccione’s genuine spinto and her vast scope of feeling and tonal shading burst gloriously into perspective with the unleashed passion of “Un bel di,” another very familiar aria that can make an audience a bit squeamish if not sung well. Not only did she sing it well, but she connected so directly with the audience that the listeners were swept into that world of emotional rapture and rhapsodic splendor where well-performed Puccini should always take us. Although modesty, sweetness and the kind of feminine vulnerability that is so essential to the interpretation of so many soprano roles mainly define her onstage persona, Ms. Guccione revealed an appropriate seductive aspect to her character portrayal with a sensual and provocative rendition of the “Habanera.” Not only was her dramatic depth further displayed with this number, but her considerable vocal range was also highlighted. Aside from mentioning her outstanding ensemble work from the opening acts of La traviata and La Boheme and the finale of Faust, there’s little more to say right now except that Rose Guccione is a fine young and polished soprano that is as good as you can expect to hear and a real credit to our community.

The baritone, Steven Pierce, was also tremendous. He is that rarity of his kind that has not only a great set of pipes with that satisfying and impressive bass coloring, but has as well a comfortable high register that allows for the most lyrical cantabile. He began the program with the Prologue from I pagliacci. He did such a powerful yet sensitive job on this number that I was well primed to hear the entire opera. Piece’s next selection, the sinister parlando with chorus in the Tosca “Te Deum” was disappointing, but not because of his effort. I think Joe Relle was a bit too ambitious in picking this piece. The chorus was in and out of tempo throughout (because they were too far away from the stage) and Sanfilippo’s monster Wurlitzer, that provided the accompaniment for this ensemble, was just too loud.

Pierce got right back on top of his game with tenor Richard Gersten in the “O Mimi tu piu non torni”, making us yearn to hear him do a complete Boheme as Marcello. If there was a very slight favorite solo on my part for this wonderful concert, it was Mr. Pierce’s remarkable rendition of Germont’s “Di Provenza” from Act II of Traviata. Folks, here’s your Verdi lyric baritone at its best! His delivery was silky smooth and his high notes were achieved without that sense of “reaching” that many baritones suffer from. Following this with the rousing Toreador Song from Carmen we can see just how great this singer’s range of expression really. is. What is very hard to see, however, is why Mr. Pierce is not a featured soloist with the major companies. They must have a system of evaluating talent that is far different than mine.

Of opera singers, good tenors are the hardest to find. Therefore it was such a delightful surprise to hear Richard Gersten’s solid and very musical performance. He sings with great intensity and passion and has a very virile quality to his instrument in all registers. Unlike Ms. Guccione, Gersten’s first solo immediately put his full range of technique and expression to the test with the famous “Vesti la giubba”, which he carried off beautifully. He followed this familiar number with the two blockbuster arias from Tosca, “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle.” There’s no place to hide in tunes like these and Mr. Gersten was definitely up for the challenge, singing naturally and powerfully, generating that special kind of excitement that only a strong tenor can deliver.

Concerts like these with numerous “showstopper” arias are tougher on tenors than anyone else. Even in a full-length opera with the most tenor-rich scores, the tenor is rarely called upon to sing more than a couple of solos, so harsh are the demands on both physical and mental stamina. Thus Mr. Gersten’s performance was most impressive indeed as he never flagged in either intensity or concentration in any of his subsequent numbers, including the “Che gelida manina”, “O soave fanciulla” and “O Mimi tu pin non torni’ from Boheme, the “Un di felice” and brindisi from Traviata, the great duet from The Pearl Fishers, the Flower Song from Carmen and, of course, the “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. What a great night for tenor pride!

The most unsung hero in concerts that feature such fine singing as this is the accompanist, who must not only be an excellent pianist technically, but has to be an outstanding musician with incredible powers of concentration in order to accommodate the soloists’ subtly changing tempos and shifting flow of expression. In this, pianist Stuart Leitch was brilliant, a rock-steady force in ensemble while providing as much color from the scores that you can expect from a single instrument.

Verdi’s immortal chorus, “Va, pensiero” may not seem like the best choice to finish off a concert, but in this case, with more than one-member of the audience joining in the singing, this hauntingly beautiful piece came off like a benediction, an “Amen” to the god­like hymns that went before. And how fitting this is, because when you hear opera sung as well as it was on this evening, it is a spiritual as well as a musical experience. I can only hope that more opera lovers can hear these super young performers. I absolutely guarantee that you won’t be disappointed!

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