In guter Tradition

 

This season’s operatic celebrations of the 1934 founding of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia began with an excellent Le nozze di Figaro in November, and continued February 15-22 with four performances of the school’s first-ever presentation of La favorite, Donizetti’s more-or-less fifty-seventh of more-or-less sixty-four operas, in the original French. I must confess my pride, as an American, that the first performance here was in 1843, only three years after the Paris premiere, in New Orleans, in French. Quite a year and quite a cultured city: there were two productions of the ballet Giselle running simultaneously!

AVA students (called Resident Artists) are a small, select graduate-school-level group, some already in the early stages of a professional career. Among the best-known AVA alumnae and alumni are Barbara Daniels, Ailyn Pérez, Latonia Moore, Angela Meade, Joyce DiDonato, Stephen Costello, Michael Fabiano, Bryan Hymel and James Morris. The current crop is a good mix (consistent with every year) of excellent second- to fourth-year singers and some extremely promising ones in their first year.

Despite the small size of the Helen Corning Warden Theater (named for AVA’s founder) and its stage, the visual side was worthy of grand opera, even if small-scale. Peter Harrison, AVA set designer since 1989, used revolving panels and arches and lush backdrops for attractive and historically appropriate imagery and to make easy changes from the monastery to the seaside to the Moorish Alcazar Palace and back to the monastery. Val Starr, in her 42nd year at AVA, designed very-14th-century costumes, both the sumptuous ones for the courtiers, soldiers, and priest Balthazar and the simple (apparently Franciscan) monk garb.

My treasured 1921 Victrola Book of the Opera describes the music of La favorite as “melodious, fluent and at all times without harshness” – true, but also sometimes cloying and not dramatic enough, especially in Act I. Elsewhere, there is gorgeous, expressive writing, and not only in the two famous arias, Léonor’s “O mon Fernand” and Fernand’s “Ange si pur” but also Alphonse’s moving expression of love for Léonor, the powerful scene in which she confesses her shame at being his mistress, and Balthasar’s “Redoutez la fureur d’un Dieu terrible.

The opera takes a while to get going, notwithstanding an overture that begins with truly ominous music and continues with appropriate variety. The lengthy opening scene between Balthazar (the rich-voiced and nuanced bass Eric Delagrange) and the novice Fernand  (tenor Oliver Sewell) was made almost silly by Sewell’s incessant foolish smile no matter what was said to him, supposedly showing his mad infatuation with the mysterious woman he has seen; and this recurred throughout the evening.. Perhaps it was what young director Gregory Boyle wanted.

Otherwise, Boyle maneuvered most of the plot’s intricate relationships successfully, both physically and emotionally, with each cast member clearly totally involved in his or her personage, including Sewell, whose role is hard to make credible and sympathetic, besides having tons to sing, including several very high notes, most of which he conquered. His arias, including the famous one, were excellent. Actually, it was a relief to experience a straightforward staging, without any of the self-indulgent, contrived, distracting, sometimes infuriating idiocies so often perpetrated by directors on singers, audiences and the ghosts of composers and librettists.

Exceptional first-year mezzo Anne Marie Stanley, as the object of Fernand’s passion but who is not free to return hers for him, and whose impossible circumstances make her a tragic figure, conveyed all the facets of Léonor’s personality and contrasting feelings, in reactions as well as actions, with a voice of great range and warmth, doing full justice to her big aria. Her final scene with Fernand and her death, to some of Donizetti’s strongest music in the opera, were heart-wrenching.

Baritone Timothy Renner was in his vocal and interpretive element as Alphonse, whether the autocratic king or the sovereign enthusiastically grateful for his military captain’s success, but most of all, as the man deeply in love, then devastated by what to him are two forms of betrayal, and then cleverly (and maybe really generously?) resolving everyone’s problems, at least temporarily.

Although the role of Inés, Léonor’s confidante, is not big, it is pivotal to the action, and has some lovely and briefly dramatic music: soprano Renée Richardson sang beautifully and gave the character real humanity.

Praise is due French Diction and Language instructor Annick Tanguy Applewhite and vocal coach Audrey Saint-Gil for the generally very good pronunciation of this notoriously difficult language, though I wanted more distinction between the infamous open and closed e, especially from Sewell.

Conductor Richard Raub, for decades one of AVA’s Master Vocal Coaches, kept this long opera moving, even in the composer’s less-inspired moments, and brought out the many instrumental examples of true inspiration, including some great cello and harp sections. At the same time, he supported the singers. The only problem, as so often in this theater, is that the AVA Orchestra, in front of the audience (no pit) is frequently too loud (Foto oben AVA). Susan Gould