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Aria Companies Stage Opera's Summer Season

State of the Arts


Published June 1, 2011 at 7:58 a.m.

La Rondine rehearsals
  • La Rondine rehearsals

Anyone who saw the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcast of Rossini’s witty Le Comte Ory knows that opera is where it’s at. In what other art form can you watch three bel-canto virtuosos — soprano Diana Damrau, tenor Juan Diego Flórez and mezzo Joyce DiDonato — sing an extended and beautiful trio composed 180 years ago while cavorting threesome-style in bed?

The Met broadcast season is over, but Vermonters can find an equal measure of delight on local opera stages this summer. Three companies are producing five operas: Puccini’s La Rondine (The Swallow) by the Opera Company of Middlebury; Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Così fan tutte (Thus Do All Women) by the Waitsfield-based Green Mountain Opera Festival; and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) by Opera North, based in Lebanon, N.H.

La Rondine may be the least familiar to any opera audience. The 1917 commission was Puccini’s late and only stab at light opera, though its story still cleaves to La Bohème-style tragedy. The swallow of the title is Magda, “a woman trapped in the Victorian idea of womanhood as property,” notes OCM’s artistic director, Doug Anderson. He’s setting the first act in 1905 and the second in the roaring ’20s. Liberation for this kept woman is not to be, of course — but at least she gets to carouse at Café Bullier, Paris’ “wildest” night spot. “I hope the audience leaves thinking, ‘We want to go to that place tomorrow night,’” Anderson remarks wryly.

OCM’s new conductor, Emmanuel Plasson, will head a 21-piece orchestra, the company’s largest since its founding in 2004. Plasson, a 46-year-old violinist from Toulouse who freelance-conducts in Australia, Japan and the U.S. as well as in his native France, is warmly enthusiastic about the Middlebury company’s small, “family-style enterprise.” And the music of this lesser-known work? “Such a gorgeous score. It has a joie de vivre and a lot of waltzes,” Plasson says. “Puccini was the ultimate theater man. He knew how to write the story and the music.”

For its sixth season, the Green Mountain Opera Festival is presenting perhaps the most popular story-and-music combo in opera since it debuted in 1875: Carmen, at the Barre Opera House. Artistic director Taras Kulish, a Montréal-born bass who sings professionally throughout Canada during the rest of the year, tapped his connections to get Richard Troxell to sing Don José. The tenor recently sang the role at the Sydney Opera House and will reprise it, opposite Denyce Graves, at the Castleton Festival in Virginia in late June. Kulish is equally excited about his Carmen: “Julie Nesrallah is drop-dead gorgeous, she sings up a storm and she just exudes sex, if I may say. I’m all for typecasting with Carmen.”

Meanwhile, the festival’s 12 Emerging Artists — chosen from a nationwide pool of 450 singers under 32 years old — will sing Così at the Skinner Barn in Waitsfield, in slightly less lavish costumes and sets and accompanied by a chamber orchestra. “To hear opera in a barn is really kind of cool,” Kulish declares. And Mozart’s 1790 opera has a timeless plot: A guy bets his buddies he can trick their sweethearts into infidelity — and does.

The three-week festival includes many more events at Sugarbush Resort and the Joslyn Round Barn in Waitsfield: concerts and open rehearsals, a picnic, a brunch and two master classes open to the public. “We usually have a good 50, 60 people showing up at these things,” says Kulish of the classes. “I would recommend coming early.”

Perhaps only the better-schooled opera fans know that Rossini did a Cinderella — in pre-Walt Disney-era 1817. Opera North’s executive director, Pamela Pantos, chalks up the work’s neglect to the fact that it was written for a coloratura mezzo. Pantos, a mezzo with an 18-year professional career in Europe behind her, says the voice part “kind of fell out of fashion until the [late] 20th century, when Marilyn Horne and Cecilia Bartoli repopularized the repertoire.” But the opera still has “a lot of that fast Rossini patter, which people will just eat up,” she promises, and it even has a frenetic Barber of Seville-like trio in which the heroine laments, “Cinderella here, Cinderella there!”

Pantos is thrilled about the “all-star cast” of both operas on ON’s 29th season. Grant Youngblood, who plays the Count in Figaro, previously sang the role at New York City Opera; Blythe Gaissert, who sings Angelina (Cenerentola), and Anne-Carolyn Bird as Susanna in Figaro, have both sung minor roles at the Met. Meanwhile, the company received its largest-ever National Endowment for the Arts grant, part of which will fund a one-hour, English-narrated version of La Cenerentola sung in Italian by ON’s Young Artists — 15 promising singers chosen from among 1000 applicants nationwide.

Figaro, Mozart’s comic 1786 opera, is about love, marriage, fidelity and nighttime trysts, so it’s fitting that the Norwich Inn is offering an Opera North package for two. It’s a bit of a splurge at $239 for two opera tickets, a room and a small dinner credit. But who ever said opera was about being sensible?