Opera Review: Boston Midsummer Opera Provides the Perfect Summer Break

Boston Midsummer Opera may be performing in a new location, but all their virtues have arrived at Watertown intact: terrific singing, fine acting, and wonderful music.

Love Italian Style, an evening made up of Donizetti’s Il Campanello and Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, staged by Boston Midsummer Opera at the Charles Mosesian Theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, on July 22 and 24.

soprano Meredith Hansen (Serafina) and baritone David Kravitz (Enrico)

Soprano Meredith Hansen (Serafina) and baritone David Kravitz (Enrico) in the BMO production of “Il Companello.” Photo: Chris McKenzie.

By Susan Miron

I would bet that most of the audience members attending the opening night of Boston Midsummer Opera last Wednesday needed a break from our current Convention(al) reality. What we got was just what the doctor ordered: a delightful escape via two rarely performed 19th century one-act Italian operas, served up by a team of excellent musicians and talented singers. Donizett’s Il Companello (The Doorbell or Night Bell) is hilarious and frothy, and features the beloved Boston baritone David Kravitz. Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz combines a lyrical idyll with a touching love story — orchestrated by a rabbi(!) — that ends happily, we presume, ever after. A perfect summertime balm for the spirit and the ears.

Among BMO’s stated goals are “to widen the audience for this beautiful art form by mounting witty productions with exciting artists that will attract new listeners as well as appeal to discriminating opera fans.” I have been to several of Boston Midsummer Opera’s productions over the years and have been impressed by the excellence of stagings that invariably feature charismatic singers and clever stage direction. This year’s chamber orchestra was sensitively conducted by the Susan Davenny Wyner, positioned with her back to the singers, which is a tricky maneuver to pull off. Among the superb players were concertmaster Jodi Hagen, oboist Jennifer Slowik, and flutist Sarah Brady. The harp, regrettably, was jettisoned because of the lack of space in the company’s new home in Watertown’s Arsenal Center for the Arts’ Charles Mosesian Theater. Once BMO’s usual Tsai Center venue was no longer unavailable, there were worries that the move to Watertown would be challenging. But there were few, if any, empty seats. Acoustics were good, sight lines excellent. However, if one sat in the first row (not recommended), the singers gave new meaning to “in your face.”

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote Il Campenaello (1836) the year after composing his most famous opera, Lucia di Lammermoor. The former is a Melodrama giocoso, and it is played to the hilarious hilt by Kravitz, who obviously enjoys displaying his considerable comic chops as the ex-lover who simply won’t take no for an answer from his girlfriend, Serafina (sung by soprano Meredith Hansen).

After ringing the eponymous doorbell, Kravitz makes several manic entrances from the back of the auditorium; each of his personae, in a different guise and different accent, asks for bizarre prescriptions during the wedding night of Serafina (Hansen) and the marvelously named Dr. Annibale Pistacchio, an elderly doctor and excited groom sung by an ever-more frustrated, harassed Jason Budd. Stage Director Antonio Ocamp-Guzman, who helmed The Merry Wives of Windsor in 2013 and The Bartered Bride in 2014, sets Campanello in the 1950s, probably as a salute to what many consider the Golden Age of singing (Callas, Simionato, Corelli, Di Stefano, Gobbi). The translation from Italian to English was rendered by the gifted translator Ruth Martin, whose rhymes were as charming and unexpected as any by Ira Gershwin.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) is best known and loved for his opera Cavalleria rusticana, one of opera’s biggest one-act hits. In the program notes, Wyner describes it as “a story of passion, betrayal, fear, superstition and murder provoked by violent sexual jealousy in a rural Sicilian society … a potboiler of melodrama and intensity.” For L’Amico Fritz, his next opera (which premiered in 1891), Mascagni took an entirely different path, “one with a simple libretto, one with almost no action.” In the notes, BMO Stage Director Ocampo Guzman clarifies the production’s approach: “We’ve attempted to steer away of any sentimentality in order to focus on the power of innocence and kindness. The story of the young man finding the courage to open his troubled heart and let in the pure, redemptive love of the farmer’s daughter stirs up the glorious music that I find profoundly moving.”

L’Amico Fritz is performed far too rarely, and I am most grateful to BMO for such a lustrous introduction to this charmer, best known for its “Cherry Duet” (go to YouTube with Pavarotti and Mirella Freni). The rabbi who co-stars in the plot of L’Amico Fritz is a rare ingredient in opera. In 1938, the Rabbi David character (here played and sung wonderfully by Jason Budd) was changed to a “gentleman”; the original rabbinic role only resurfaced in the past twenty-five years. Both preconcert lecturers, Ellen Golde and Richard Dyer, pointed out how unusual it is to find a sympathetic portrayal of either a Jew (to say nothing less than a rabbi!) or a gypsy in opera, although gypsies appear with some frequency in Hungarian operettas.

Fritz Kobus, (sung by Matthew Vickers), a wealthy, well-meaning landowner who firmly disdains marriage, falls for Suzel (Meredith Hansen), a shy farmer’s daughter who shares his enjoyment of spring and flowers. The clever and generous Rabbi David plays matchmaker; he makes Fritz realize that he is in love with the sprightly Suzel (whom Hansen endows with  a beautiful singing voice and manner). A happy ending follows, full of nice surprises and first-class singing by all. Two small roles, Serafina’s mother in Il Campanello and Beppe, gypsy musician, a friend of Fritz, are sung by Britt Brown, who leaves a most favorable impression. Hansen and Matthew Vickers are terrific in the “Cherry Duet.” Rabbi David is a mensch, to boot.

Hard to think of a breezier and more entertaining opening act(s) for the BMO in its new home. The company may be performing in a new location, but all its virtues have arrived at Watertown intact: terrific singing, fine acting, and wonderful music.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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