Sunday, March 4, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, March 4, 2001

Opera Review
Melodic voices add zest to melodramas

By Gregory Shepherd

With their themes of love, betrayal and revenge, Pietro Mascagni’s "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s "I Pagliacci" have become miniature icons of the hyperinflated verismo style of Italian opera. And with yet another contingent of superb singers, Hawaii Opera Theatre’s production of the two one-act operas caps off a 2001 season most notable for its fine voices.

"Cavalleria" takes some time to rev up, with lots of purely instrumental music at the beginning, but its passion reaches fever-pitch when the antagonisms of the love triangle (or is it a trapezoid?) are resolved with unsheathed knives. As Turiddu, the village playboy (and later as Canio in the second opera), Jean-Francis Monvoisin brought a tenor voice that was thrilling at first, but seemed to run low on strength for the all-important "Vesti la giubba" aria of "Pagliacci." Had Monvoisin held back somewhat in the first opera, he might also have given Turiddu a dimension other than mania.

Sharon Graham’s depiction of Santuzza, Turiddu’s castoff lover in "Cavalleria," was a high point of the evening. Graham’s phenomenal vocal and dramatic range had no weak points, and her finely shaped softer notes balanced the soaring power of her versatile mezzo voice. Sarah-Helen Land contributed lovely singing and coquettish acting to the part of Lola.

Mark S. Doss does double duty as Alfio in "Cavalleria" and Tonio in "Pagliacci," and his rich bass-baritone gave authority to the first role and lurid menace to the second. His Tonio, a hunchback in love with the out-of-reach Nedda in the second opera, slithers with chilling malevolence. Karen Driscoll’s assured depiction of Nedda mixes wonderfully focused singing with natural stage movement.

Doug Jones as Beppe and David Templeton as Silvio in "Pagliacci" sang with somewhat less vocal power than the others on Friday, but their dramatic abilities were up to the challenge. Bea Lemke-Frieszell sang the part of Mamma Lucia in "Cavalleria" with a supple and colorful mezzo voice, while the volunteer HOT Chorus, ably prepared by Nola Nahulu, turned in yet another performance of a professional caliber.

Michael Cavanagh’s stage direction gave the large number of people on stage convincing movement and creative bits of business that lent an air of naturalness. An exception was the occasional orderly straight line of people which rarely occurs outside of an English bus queue. Andreas Mitisek’s conducting of the Honolulu Symphony supported the large voices quite well, the smaller ones less so, while his brisker tempos occasionally went out of kilter with the singers.

Gregory Shepherd has been The Advertiser’s opera critic since 1987.

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