Parterre Box - Too Cloistered for Comfort

New Amsterdam Opera, first heard last year in a surprisingly enjoyable performance of La forza del destino, returned on Saturday night with a concert version of Donizetti’s elaborate score La favorita, offering energy, panache and several top-notch young soloists.

The evening’s special find was Steven Labrie as King Alfonso, a strapping figure with a thrilling baritone of the proper size and serene, bel canto ease for any Donizetti role you care to mention. The duplicitous Castilian king (Leonora’s lover, Fernando’s betrayer) was just the sort of suave figure to show off Labrie’s elegance of delivery and sureness of technique, and the crowd adored him.

The only question in anyone’s mind concerned his rather unvarying level of sound—can he sing softly as beautifully as he sings loudly, underline a phrase for dramatic effect? We do not know and yearn to find out.

Donizetti wrote a lot of operas for star baritone, but around here we only know those that feature a star soprano; it would be a fine thing if Labrie took on Belisario or Torquato Tasso. He cut a fine figure in a performance dedicated to the memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and he does not grind gears at the end of a phrase as Dima used to do.

Catherine Martin, in the title role of Leonora da Guzman, brought a vast, plummy sound to this sensuous but self-questioning role, with Wagnerian intensity and soaring phrases if few flights of coloratura. Leonora does not enjoy herself very much—she’s too wracked with guilt, and Martin explored this in long-breathed, beautifully unfolding lines. An exciting performance.

Soprano April Martin sang her confidante, Ines (who gets a cute little double aria, more than most confidantes ever sing). She seemed miscast because her voice is of major weight, too grand for this light intermezzo role.

Kevin Thompson’s warmly reassuring basso seems created to play abbots—inquisitors, high priests, deans, what-have-you—and he offered both godlike wrath and confessional consolation in full-breathed phrases of great smoothness and fluency.

Keith Chambers, New Amsterdam’s conductor and director, took care to thank Eve Queler—who was present—for lending them the parts, which she conducted on two occasions at Carnegie Hall.  The score was snipped of the ballet and several cabaletta repeats but still ran to a hefty three hours of Grade A Donizetti.  But the orchestra, though small, was impressively able and together, no mean feat in a grand opera score.

If this company can expand to more than one event per annum and more commodious digs than the Center at West Park (Amsterdam and 86th Street), excellent though its acoustics are and however lovely its Romanesque revival stuccos, we may find here the long-awaited and worthy successor to OONY. All they need, I suspect, is money.

- John Yohalem, Parterre Box

La Favorita: Steven LaBrie & Catherine Martin Give Star-Studded Performances In Donizetti’s Rarely Performed Gem

For the past three years, the New Amsterdam Opera has been showcasing emerging opera stars and repertoire staples that are no longer performed as frequently in New York. The company has been consistent thus far in the quality of its performances and on June 2, 2018, it presented Donizetti’s “La Favorita” with two radiant leads that should be on the radar of major opera companies.

It was also a special evening as the company was honoring the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who performed the work back in 2001 with the Opera Orchestra of New York.

While Fernando is the leading role in the opera, it was baritone Steven La Brie, in the role of Alfonso, that easily stole the show.

From the moment LaBrie entered the stage, he showcased a dominant presence that overpowered anyone on stage. He quickly captivated with his confident phrases in his aria “Vien Leonora a’piedi tuoi.” His voice, suave and ardent, moved about with flexibility as he shaped the lines with passion. Though his cadenza in the middle of the aria had some muddled coloratura, he perfectly controlled the line returning to a gorgeous mezza voce.

During his subsequent cabaletta, LaBrie gave his baritone a more heroic stance that demonstrated command of his instrument. It was vocal fireworks without superficial vocal pyrotechnics, such as interpolating unnecessary high notes.

But more potent was his Act three aria, “A Tanto amor.” Here he sang with tenderness, caressing each phrase with a gorgeous piano that crescendoed to a forte. His phrases grew in volume as the aria developed, showcasing the ardor and love for Leonora. It was easily the most beautiful moment of the evening and one that showed the varied colors this singer can give.

But what also made LaBrie’s performance standout was his stage presence. While he was constrained to a stand (it was a concert performance), he was one of the few who tried to interact with his castmates. Whether it was just looking over at his Leonora from the opposite side or not walking on with music in Act three during a brief recitative, this made for a potent portrayal and allowed the audience to get a picture of who this character is. It also engaged the audience to focus on each gesture. Whereas this character could easily be considered a villain, LaBrie made Alfonso a sympathetic character.

In the title role as Leonora, Catherine Martin brought a lush mezzo voice with agility in the coloratura and an even line. While her opening lines in the duet “Ah. mio bene” gave off some uncertainty, she quickly warmed up to showcase a rich timbre moving through the music with ease. During her duet with LaBrie, “In questo suolo a lusingar tue cure,” the two singers’ voices easily meshed, combining Martin’s anguish with LaBrie’s ardent passion. And as Act two built toward’s its finale, Martin’s desperation and torment built. Her voice grew with force and the sometimes icy qualities of the timbre shaped into a passionate outburst.

And it all climaxed in her Act three scene with the aria “O Mio Fernando.” This was perhaps the highlight for Martin. The mezzo gave the aria a yearning quality that expressed Leonora’s suffering and shaped each line with a delicate legato. This was in stark contrast to her cabaletta “Scritto e in ciel,” which not only showcased the soprano’s virtuosic agility, but also the fierceness in the voice and her dramatic weight. What made the cabaletta even more potent was Martin’s growing intensity and the fact that she never indulged in unnecessary coloratura. She sang each phrase with immediacy, giving the final moments force.

In Act four one finally saw the dramatic voice that Martin has. There was conflict, torment, and desperation within each of her phrases. But as the final duet built toward the climax in which the first act duet is repeated, Martin brought a bright color to her timbre. There was a moment of ecstasy as she unleashed her full vocal power. As Leonora sings her final dying phrases, Martin gave off a pure piano sound with such finesse that it was arguably the most heartbreaking moment of the evening.

Like LaBrie, Martin was as active as she could be on stage, interacting with her partners and reacting to the text with precision and immediacy. One got the sense that Martin wanted to move toward her partners and be able to have more contact, which only made this reviewer picture what a fully staged “Favorita” would be like with Martin allowed to have more physical contact with her castmates. Nonetheless, Martin perfectly suited for this role and one hopes to see this mezzo get a fully staged production in the future.

In “Spirto Gentil” Peter Scott Drackley sang with a fil di voce, showing a purity of sound that was not seen throughout the evening. And this made for a beautifully phrased lament. His ascension into the upper register was effortless and it rang with a gorgeous color. In the final duet with Martin, Drackley was also at his most unhinged, but in a good way. One could finally hear the passion and the virile voice. He was no longer constrained and he seemed liberated. His final “e spenta” was beautifully sung with resonant power and desperation.

In the role of Baldassare, Kevin Thompson sang with a booming tone. The bass has an immense sound that can easily fill any hall and he did just that at every moment he could. The big problem, however, was that he lacked a wide range of vocal colors. His expressions, both vocal and facial, were exactly the same throughout the night, making for a one-dimensional character. While his voice is one filled with an exciting sound, the lack of diverse phrasing made his portrayal predictable. Another issue with the lack of dynamic range was that he easily covered his castmates in moments where his bass was not as crucial to the ensemble.

As Ines, April Martin showcased a sweet and tender voice in her short but crucial aria “Bei Raggi Lucenti.” Her melting middle voice and her agile coloratura lines brought out a youthful character.

New Amsterdam Opera was able to bring two artists at their vocal heights and bring unforgettable portrayals to the New York audience. Moreover, one has to commend the company for bringing this rare gem back to New York and this alone makes this company one to keep an eye out for. Already excited for what is to come next year.

- Francisco Salazar, Operawire

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