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Opera Bel Cantanti

Opera Bel Cantanti, Salut à la France, 2006The modest auditorium of La Maison Française (check out their snazzy new Web site) is one of the most civilized places to hear a concert in Washington, no small thanks to the glass of wine (and occasionally even cheese or other food) that you know awaits you after the music has ceased. So it was nice to be back at the Embassy of France last night for the first concert of their fall season, the latest program from Opera Bel Cantanti. It is a selection of arias and other pieces from your favorite French operas, going under the name Salut à la France. Literally, almost all of your favorite French operas: we could have done with a little less than a three-hour recital.

From the group's roster of budding singers, as one might expect, some performances were stronger than others. Some of the best work came from soprano Emily Ezzie, whom I admired in Bel Cantanti's Iolanta this summer. She was an earnest Micaëla, a role that seems quite suited to her, and she sang with the best French pronunciation, in an evening that featured some awful French at times. Meghan McCall was a very strong Marie in the group's La Fille du Régiment last year, and she had fine turns as Manon, as well as reprising two of the big Marie pieces. Korean coloratura soprano Keesun Kwon mostly excelled with Olympia's aria from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann and was a petite if not exactly blonde Philine in "Je suis Titania" from Ambroise Thomas's Mignon (her high notes occasionally soured toward flatness). Mezzo-soprano Jessica Renfro, in a slinky red dress (shown above), gave a sexy reading of Carmen's habanera. Her pairing with Kwon on the Delibes duet of Lakmé and Mallika was particularly lovely.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Bel Cantanti, Singing Superbly in a Place to Call Its Own (Washington Post, September 11)
Exceptional single performances came in the least familiar -- and therefore most interesting -- selections. Mezzo-soprano Rhea Walker gave a pleasing and full-bodied rendition of Salomé's "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Hérodiade, an opera that is on my wishlist for one of Opera Bel Cantanti's future seasons (much more welcome than yet another Marriage of Figaro, planned for December -- yawn!). Soprano Abigail Wright was acidicly funny and in impressively good voice as Concepción, in "Oh! la pitoyable aventure" from Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole (add that to my wishlist for Opera Bel Cantanti, perhaps in a double-bill with L'enfant et les sortilèges or Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias). As with many of the comic pieces, I seemed to be the only one that found the funny parts funny (there were no supertitles). The award for singing that was a parody of itself goes to tenor Yoonsoo Shin (Des Grieux's "Ah! Fuyez, Douce Image" and Werther's "Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?," the latter added spontaneously to the program), who has quite a voice but a stage manner that appears to be based mostly on watching DVDs of Luciano Pavarotti.

My only reservation about this concert was that it could have easily been a half-hour shorter. Eliminating the excerpts from Roméo et Juliette, Les Pecheurs de Perles, Samson et Dalila, Faust, and trimming those from Carmen would have streamlined the program and avoided the least pleasing performances. It would also have allowed music director and hard-working accompanist Katerina Souvorova more time to focus on some of those difficult passages, not all of which came off flawlessly. Sometimes, less is more.

Katerina Souvorova, director of Opera Bel Cantanti and a very classy lady, has made a thoughtful and well-reasoned comment on this review. I have replied to her in a follow-up comment.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your nice review about our “ Salut a la France”. I am glad that you liked it. We were pleased to know that many people liked it too. Yes, it was long, too long probably. Why? Because Bel Cantanti Opera is an educational, training company. For many singers that you heard yesterday at La Maison Française, achieving a certain level of confidence and artistry was very important. For me, as their mentor and vocal coach, letting their performance happen was much more important than cutting it out of the concert making the program shorter and more pleasing for the audience.
And yes, I would love to do rarely performed operas such as "Hérodiade" , "L'enfant et les sortilèges" or "Les Mamelles de Tirésias".I understand the need to “educate” the audience and love to introduce to people some unknown, but beautiful music. Believe me, this was why we performed "Iolanta" and "Aleko" last year. Among the reasons for presenting everybody’s favorite “Le Nozze di Figaro” is the fact that a small opera company that exists only on the ticket sales has to have money to develop. Balancing the program with popular and less known operas is the key to our artistic and financial survival.
Please, come to see our “Le Nozze” in December. I am sure, that you will love it.
Katerina Souvorova
General and Artistic Director
Bel Cantanti Opera

Charles T. Downey said...

Dr. Souvorova, thank you for these thoughtful comments, which I certainly take to heart. In my previous reviews of Opera Bel Cantanti, I have praised your choice of lesser-known operas like Iolanta and Aleko, as well as your commitment to bringing opera to more people at lower prices. I should perhaps have reiterated my admiration in this review.

I also appreciate that you have to keep your budget in the black, and thus your choice of Figaro. It is just less interesting as a choice, which I know that you know. Thank you again for this interesting selection of French arias.