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The Joy of Operatic Sadism

New York
Bleecker Street Opera, 45 Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village
10/18/2009 -  & Sundays (7pm) October 25*, November 1, 8, 15, Saturdays (5pm) October 24, 31, November 7, 14, Wednesdays (1pm) October 23, November 4
Italo Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre re (The Love of Three Kings), libretto by Sem Benelli

Garth Taylor (Archibaldo, King of Altura), Benjamin Sloman (Flaminio), Anthony Daino (Avito), James Wordsworth (Manfredo), Christina Arethas (Fiora), Mia Riker-Norrie (Handmaiden), Nozomi Kawaguchi (Other woman), Donald Johnston (Youth), Katie Barnard, Melissa Craig, Daniel Curtis, Donald Johnston, Glenda Pezuela, Aria Sohoutti, Carrie Wright (Courtiers/Chorus)
Daniel Curtis (Chorus Master), Bleeker St Opera Orchestra, Paul Haas (Music director/Conductor)
Richard Cerulto (Art Director), Patrica McCay (Costume Mistress)

G. Taylor (© Bleecker Street Opera)

Is Bleecker Street becoming the Greenwich Village branch of Lincoln Center? Within heldentenor shouting distance from the defunct Amato Opera, Bleecker Street Opera is presenting a true opera rara. Three blocks west, Poisson Rouge schedules nightly eclectic artists ranging from Steve Reich to Jonathan Biss. Around the corner, theaters like the Flea have any number of Bang On A Can alumni.

That’s a lot of music for an area once renowned for cool jazz and hot touristy pizza. But the first offering of the Bleecker Street Opera, a decent performance of Montemezzi’s Love Of Three Kings, was evidence that the Village area is undergoing a kind another incarnation.

Some 75 years ago, Italo Montemezzi’s opera was hardly rare. Toscanini conducted its American debut, Mary Garden once played Florio, Ezio Pinza played the blind King Archibald, a sold-out Met Opera crowd watch the composer himself conduct the opera, and some 25 years ago, City Opera put it on the boards.

Today, the Penguin Book of Operas doesn’t even mention Montemezzi, and when I mentioned to knowing friends that I was going, they thought I had mispronounced Monteverdi.

So blessings on this new company for taking a decent basement space, putting in an orchestra, some sparse settings (a sketch of some battlements), and stylized 10th Century costumes.

The opera was sung in the original Italian with no subtitles, but the story is so simple, so indicative of late Italian opera that a reading of the synopsis easily sufficed. Briefly: blind King’s son is married to a woman who loves another. When the King hears (but does not see) their intimate meetings, he strangles her, then her husband puts poison on her lips, so when her lover visits her in the crypt, he kisses her and dies. As does the repentant husband.

This gives room for a Cavalleria-style religious chorus, a very tense pre-strangling scene between king and daughter-in-law, a lovely aria by Archibald about his martial past, and the usual love scenes. The opera has no set pieces, but like other one-hit Italian opera composers (Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Giordano etc), rolls along at a fast pace. The only major flaws are three intermezzi, which are not only boring but leave the actors with nothing to do. (The heroine, Fiora, paces back and forth for about eight inglorious minutes!)

Of the two casts, I heard a pair of absolutely splendid voices. Christina Arethas as Fiora was perhaps too loud for the basement theater, but her upper registers were so gorgeous she was easily forgiven. In a smaller role, Benjamin Sloman, as Archibald’s assistant has a tenor voice so heroic and resonant that I wished he could have replaced the colorless lover, played by Anthony Daino. The husband, played by baritone James Wordsworth, was frankly not up to it. The voice was weak, the acting strangely stilted.

That old blind King, sung by Garth Taylor, did have his wonderful moments, for this is a terrific character. Like the blind hero of Nabokov’s Laughter In The Dark, Archibald can hear what’s going on but doesn’t know where or when. The scene where he interrogates Fiora is as good as anything written by Puccini.

The most challenging job was by conductor Paul Haas. His orchestra consisted of all the winds, brass and drums necessary (great fanfares for trumpet and clarinet!), but the string section was a string quintet. Yet the balance was excellent No, it didn’t sound like Levine’s Met, but the orchestra had the enthusiasm of any provincial Italian town. That was quite sufficient for an opera which swings along with energy commitment, and all the sadism one needs for a terrific evening in the Village.

Harry Rolnick



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