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Chamber Opera Festival goes for intimate performances 

Chamber Opera Festival

The word "opera" is often preceded by the adjective "grand," but many operatic pleasures are as intimate as they are rewarding. Exploring the vast repertoire of small-scale and one-act operas has been a specialty of Rochester Lyric Opera for several years, and this weekend's RLO Chamber Opera Fest will feature a variety of musical goodies.

For Friday's opening night, Rochester Lyric Opera is joining forces with a newer group, Opera Ithaca, to present a pair of "Histoires d'Amour," or "Parisian Love Stories": operatic romances set in 19th-century Paris.

One half of the double bill doesn't really qualify as a one-act, and its Parisian love story is actually by an Italian composer, but probably nobody will mind hearing highlights from Puccini's "La Bohème," one of the most popular of all operas. Members of the company, including RLO Founder and Artistic Director Sue Cotroneo as Mimi, will offer a sort of greatest-hits assortment of arias and ensembles from this evergreen score.

The companion piece to the "Bohème" excerpts will be a "fun, sweet love story" (in Cotroneo's accurate description) that will be a discovery for most opera lovers: "Une éducation manqué" ("An Incomplete Education") by the 19th-century French composer Emmanuel Chabrier. Best known for ebullient, tuneful orchestral works like "Espana" and "Marche joyeuse," Chabrier also wrote several operas, including this charmingly risqué trifle: a story of a just-married couple whose "incomplete education" did not include instructions about what to do on their honeymoon. (They eventually figure it out, thanks to an opportune thunderstorm and a frightened bride in a loose nightie.)

"Une éducation manqué" will be fully costumed and staged, and both parts of the double bill will be accompanied by an orchestra. Opera Ithaca's Richard Montgomery will serve as stage director and conductor for this double bill. The Chabrier performance will be sung in French and the "Bohème" excerpts in Italian, but both with English supertitles.

For something completely different, on Saturday, Lyric Opera will present "Little Red's Most Unusual Day," which might be described as a comic-operatic fantasia on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Composer John Davies arranged the score from famous tunes of Mozart, Rossini, and Offenbach — "tunes kids would recognize," Cotroneo says. For example, Little Red sings "Off to Grandmother's house I go" to the tune of Offenbach's popular "Tales of Hoffmann" barcarolle.

To the outlines of the familiar story, Davies adds a romance between a forest ranger and Little Red's mother; a misplaced basket of flowers; and quite a few farcical tangles which get untangled in a half-hour or so. It's an entertaining diversion for families, and according to Cotroneo, an ideal introduction for kids to the music of opera.

"Little Red's Most Unusual Day" will be presented at The Strong National Museum of Play (1 Manhattan Square Drive) as part of its Royal Ball Weekend. (Admission to the production is included with museum admission). Rochester Lyric Opera has presented a short, family-oriented production during the Royal Ball for several years now. It is "our gift to the community," Cotroneo says. It also builds the Lyric Opera's audiences: parents whose kids enjoyed the Strong Museum operas often bring them to "grown-up" Lyric Opera shows.

"I'd always wanted to work with Deb Fox," Cotroneo says, and for the final performance of the festival on Sunday evening, Lyric Opera will team up with Pegasus Early Music (of which Fox is the artistic director) for "A Night at the Baroque Opera." Two of Pegasus's ace guest vocalists — soprano Laura Heimes and countertenor José Lemos — will be heard in a program of familiar arias from operas by Monteverdi ("The Coronation of Poppea"), Handel ("Giulio Cesare"), and Purcell ("Dido and Aeneas" and "The Fairy Queen"). They'll be joined by the Pegasus Early Music Baroque Orchestra, which will also play orchestral excerpts from several baroque operas — and for good measure, a sonata by Johann Georg Pisandel, a contemporary of J. S. Bach.

Opera from the 17th and 18th centuries (before Gluck and Mozart) was hardly performed until after World War II. With the growth of interest and expertise in early music scholarship and performance practices, works by Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi, along with such figures from music history books as Agostino Steffani and Marc-Antoine Charpentier, have become surprisingly good for the box office.

For Deb Fox, this popularity comes as no surprise at all. Calling the music of baroque opera "by turns heroic, heartfelt, virtuosic, and poignant," she points out that it is also a gift for singers.

"Opera singers in the baroque era were expected to ornament their parts, often competing to outdo each other: They could become as famous as opera divas today, with fans in attendance cheering them on during performances." Fox adds that Laura Heimes and José Lamos, both frequent guests of Pegasus Early Music, have the requisite baroque virtuoso chops, as well as "a rare and appealing rapport with each other onstage."

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