Giulio Cesare: Bel Cantanti, Washington DC, 10th October 2009

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On the weekend of October 10 (and again next weekend), the young Washington, D.C. based Bel Cantanti Opera images/stories/caesar.bmpCompany is presenting staged performances of Handel's Giulio Cesare. Although there were a handful of internal cuts (the work is given with a tiny orchestra of two stands each of violins and violas, a single French horn and oboe for a few obbligato solos, and electronic harpsichord played by the conductor and artistic founder of the company, Katerina Souvorova, and with no chorus other than the soloists doubling), the opening night performance was essentially a complete presentation of the opera.

If it is impressive that a company which gives three fully staged and often rare operas, undertakes such a Handel performance in its sixth year of existence, (the rest of this year is Peter Brooks' Tragedy of Carmen and a double bill of Le docteur Miracle and Monsieur Choufleuri, and past seasons have included Aleko, Iolanta and other rarities), it is even more impressive that, with Giulio Cesare, Bel Cantanti is highlighting a young American countertenor as Cesare, Nicholas Tamagna, who looks to be one of the most remarkable performers in his vocal range to emerge over the last few decades. Tamagna, who according to his biography only made his professional debut earlier this year, has sung both the typical neophyte's range of the new and the unusual (including a thoroughly demented Ulrica in stage and concert versions - this reviewer can attest on personal experience to Tamagna's ability to handle that role's vocal range without compromise or strain), displays a countertenor voice unlike any other. In general terms, one can divide countertenors into those who sing with a certain clean purity of sound and those who sacrifice purity (or just attain it) to an almost shrill and more 'dramatic' sound. My current favorites in this voice type are Andreas Scholl, Lawrence Zazzo and the currently less-active Michael Chance, but no matter what the theatrical and musical instincts, and however beautiful the sound (in the case of Scholl), the voices themselves necessarily tend to the monochromatic and usually have difficulty blending with other voice types, which have much greater resonance. To these ears, in fact, a countertenor in opera usually pales after a short period - the tonal palette is too limited and the dynamic range constricted

images/stories/caesar and cleopatra2.jpgTamagna's sound can be described as that of a sexy, masculine, English alto - it is richly colored, deep in texture, and capable of great dynamic range. What came to mind on more than one occasion on Saturday night was the tonal palette of such singers as Kathleen Ferrier (whose actual range I believe Tamagna exceeds) and Dame Janet Baker. In fact, Tamagna's countertenor sound is so substantial that although his occasional descents into chest voice show a necessary difference in resonance and vocal weight, there is no perceptible change in vocal color, and no weakness in sound in the notes just about the chest, where countertenors are often at their most vulnerable.

What one gets is a masculine countertenor sound, but with all the coloratura flexibility and 'HIP-ness' of the voice type. Not for a moment did Tamagna's voice grate, and in Cesare's great set piece, "Va tacito e nascosto", the depth of sound was simply thrilling, and matched entirely the mood of the aria; in his duet with Cleopatra, "Caro/Bella", Tamagna's sound had all the presence and body of his colleague, and there was no need to suspend disbelief that this was a male Cesare hot in love with his Cleopatra. Tamagna is still a young singer, and obviously will benefit over time with a greater sense of how to deploy his stage resources - his acting can be intense, and promises a great deal, but he will profit by more intensive coaching and training in finding a unitary stage characterization. But the voice itself is entirely 'there' now, simply waiting for the right series of breaks (he sings Gluck's Orfeo in Memphis this spring, apparently), and the basic artistry and expressive intensity seem already formed.

If nothing else on the Bel Cantanti stage quite met this standard - and little could - there was not a performance out of place, and two singers in particular deserve mention. Bridgid Eversole is apparently a local favorite and stalwart, and there's nothing in this difficult role, including lovely sustained soft tones, easy fioritura and a liquid trill, that she couldn't manage; I have heard less capable Cleopatras on considerably more prominent stages. The stage persona, unfortunately, tended to be a bit maudlin - too often. She seemed to rely on 'pulling faces' to express emotion - but this is a matter of taste, and when I thought afterwards why she wasn't, perhaps, singing more extensively elsewhere, I wondered if the voice itself, however pleasing in this small house (it seats, I should think, less than 200, and the stage could not be more than twenty-five feet in length and fifteen in depth), was slightly generic and without that final éclat which separates the good singers from the next level; where artists begin to acquire a specific personality in the voice.

images/stories/tolomeo and cleopatra2.jpg

Worth watching too, was the night's Sesto, Francesca Aguado. Her mezzo sound is very solid and if, at the extreme upper and lower limits, the voice isn't entirely developed yet, still, there is something in the tone color and the excellent support, which suggests that a larger career may be in the offing. Biraj Barakaty, our 'other' countertenor, provided a vivid portrayal of an alternately effete and menacing Tolomeo, and it was only in contrast to Tamagna's much greater vocal resources that his work seemed less than fully exemplary.

Before the evening began, the Chair of the Board spoke a few words, and suggested that the audience be prepared forimages/stories/sesto francesca2.jpg the updating of the piece to the 20th century, which reminded him more of Rommel in Northern Africa than Cesare in Egypt, but in fact for a small company, the updating was reasonable - contemporary military uniforms, discretely accessorized, make sense here, and all the relationships and drama of the opera were retained with integrity. The simple sets - a few movable Roman columns on a raised part of the upper stage, discrete benches and chairs brought in and out when necessary, with rational exits and entrances for the characters, worked quite well, and if at moments Deborah Niezgoda's direction tended to be a bit fussy (there was a tendency to "choreograph" too much of the music, and to try to make "contemporary" the reactions of the characters, in contrast to what the style of the music demands) never once did the direction move towards wretched excess, and in fact this audience seemed to enjoy the vividness with which the characters' dilemmas were portrayed. ..

Much praise is due to the artistic director, Ms Souvorova. Her choice of tempi was consistently judicious, she managed her small and well-rehearsed band well, and she has a clear sense of what the singers required. Ms Souvorova has obviously nurtured a company which is presenting important work with careful preparation, and in this case of Tamagna, a singer who is destined to go places.


Richard Garmise
Opera Britannia

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 14 October 2009 10:47 )  


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