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Starry Bel Canto operas soar at Caramoor

Now in its 14th summer, Will Crutchfield’s “Bel Canto at Caramoor” series has become a reliably stimulating feature of New York’s not exactly opera-rich summer season. Crutchfield’s explorations—not limited to bel canto’s canonical threesome—regularly draw a loyal exodus north to the leafy Katonah estate. (Reasonable bus transport is available for the Manhattan carless.) “Birdsong” joined charmingly in the charms of “I puritani” (July 8), very strongly cast for a one-off concert.

Sumi Jo and Crutchfield both love elaborate—sometimes even fussy and flashy—decoration, and so were well matched for “Son vergine vezzosa,” “Vien diletto,” and what remained of “Ah, sento, o mio bel angelo.” Jo’s staccati are a marvel; however, her admirable sustained singing proved more rewarding. On this showing, she has gained in communicative ability through purely vocal means, though words could still be more expressively weighted; plus, an air of solipsistic display hovered around her presentation—too many solo concerts?

North America has been experiencing a wave of mystifyingly imported British-based artists in easily cast roles like Musetta, Masetto, and Sharpless, but one most welcome regular current visitor to New York in very difficult music indeed is English tenor Barry Banks, the night’s passionate and stylishly sung Arturo. A confident, ringing C sharp in “A te, o cara” served notice of a high tenor on high form. Banks tossed off thrilling Ds, flipping over into voix mixte for the famous F while admirably keeping all these sallies within a taut line. His words were clear and meaningful, if sometimes resolutely Anglo-Saxon around the consonants. Banks radiated good humor, finding a wildly appreciative audience.

Justified cheers also erupted for the Giorgio of Daniel Mobbs, a highly talented Crutchfield protégé whose strikingly agile bass-baritone has been a Caramoor mainstay in recent seasons. Mobbs’ smoothness of line, ability to play dynamically within a phrase and excellent linguistic acumen bespeak a successor to the much-missed Donald Gramm. He boasts both good looks and good stage presence—not the same thing, pace much recent hype.

Weston Hurt, the promising Riccardo recently out of Juilliard, still needs work on presence, though he too impressed with supple phrasing and dynamics. The essentially quality is lyric and unforced, up to A flat; unlike many baritones he had the taste not to treat Bellini in a manner befitting mature Verdi. Not yet 30, Laura Vlasak Nolen is the first Enrichetta I have encountered—live or on recordings—to merit the adjective “spectacular;” a rich, sizable mezzo with fine agility used with dramatic point. Malcolm in NYCO’s upcoming “Donna del Lago,” alongside Banks, Mobbs and Alexandrina Pendatchanska, promises much.

Crutchfield remains a more acute conductor of singers than of orchestras, but by trusting in the high level of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s players to deliver after not overlong rehearsals, his results proved at least satisfactory, sometimes more. The stormy Act III intro sizzled. Only some slurry brass really detracted, and that fortunately not from “Suoni la tromba;” the whole scena for Riccardo and Giorgio concluding Act II was given in more extensive form—and sung by Hurt and Mobbs with better articulation and accuracy—than had ever been my privilege to hear.

Despite unpleasant humidity and heat throughout the region, “Tancredi” (July 22) drew a capacity crowd, confirming New York opera lovers’ hunger to hear Ewa Podles’ rich contralto in operatic roles. One sensed pockets of purist sniffing at her unorthodox use of registers and athletically produced coloratura, yet few could have been disappointed in her spectacular agility and range and full-out interpretive commitment; few if any contemporary singers dare—or achieve—as much in public performance. She and the gifted Georgia Jarman (Amenaide) made a potent blend in duets; initially Jarman seemed to be pushing her excellently trained soprano at climaxes, but she settled down into a persuasive, stylish performance, with lovely pellucid top lines in ensembles and remarkable fiorature in her final cabaletta. One wishes Yegische Manuchuryan (Argirio) would master more fully the linguistic component of the bel canto style in which his attractive, remarkably flexible tenor and astounding ease on top otherwise suggest him as of international potential. He and Podles made “Ah se de’ mali miei” a thrilling experience. Mobbs (Orbazzano) and Vlasak Nolan (Isaura) again excelled; a real pity her clarinet-accompanied aria went unheard.

Both Crutchfield—himself playing the recits, and pointedly—and the players seemed more intently focused, and honored the considerable opportunities Rossini affords orchestral soloists in introductory passages. (Some impressively stentorian bullfrogs occasionally produced unexpected harmonics, but that is part of Caramoor’s sylvan charm.) The male chorus was small but valiant.

As in their 2005 Toronto performances, Podles and Crutchfield ventured the tragic alternate ending, with her noble-toned, eloquent recitative declamation fading gradually into elegiac silence; a gamble by conductor and star which paid off handsomely in this relatively intimate setting.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for many venues.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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