Mendelssohn season closes with two one-act operas

Mendelssohn season closes with two one-act operas

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

Friday evening, June 22, the Mendelssohn Club closed out this year’s musical season for Rockford’s audience for classics by presenting two one-act operas that are rarely performed–Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Wolf-Ferrari’s Secret of Susanna. The performance took place in First Presbyterian Church on Main Street and was repeated on Sunday afternoon.

Suor Angelica, in its favor, gives a wide cast of sopranos (and mezzos) the opportunity for their individual moments to shine. Countering that, however, when the entire cast is covered with the 19th century convention of religious “habit,” a formal dress that concealed the individual and repressed individual expression, we can joyfully report that the voices all shone forth with musical style and clarity, but it was not always as evident which character was in focus. The title role, held by Martha Dahlberg, was the richest in the variety of emotions required and the vocal range as well. Dahlberg, blessed with a fine mechanism and serious musical understanding, carried the role successfully, flowing seamlessly through the different vocal registers, sustaining the high notes without strain, and even managed to be convincing in the opera’s melodramatic twists of plot. The cast includes two contraltos–the abbess and Angelica’s wicked aunt–which leads us to ponder how composers tend to give the romance and the innocence to higher voices, and so often let the contraltos and the basses be the evil characters.

But there is also the curiosity to learn more about Puccini’s thoughts and purposes. His earlier operas usually showed clear contrast of groups and characters, enhanced by costume styles, and polished off with melodies and musical flourishes that remained in the memory to insure their place in the audience’s recall and in operatic history as well. Boheme, Tosca, Turandot, Butterfly, all have star-quality arias and idiomatic harmonic expressions that come immediately to mind, and that identify the opera at once. Was Puccini experimenting to see where he would go with the preachings of Wagner, Berg, Schonberg

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and their musical followers? Was he stymied by a libretto that did not lend itself to the standard aria format?

In any case, it was a privilege to hear a rarely-performed work and have the opportunity to explore the questions it presented. The whole cast is to be credited with handling the musical intricacies, and also the tricky stage moves when working on a very restricted space. The closing chorus of youthful voices from the balcony was especially lovely, and musically important in that it helped bring a new generation into contact with operatic production and expression.

An intermission that offered welcome fruit punch gave the audience a chance to mingle and visit while the stage was revised to portray the drawing room of Susanna, a young woman who feels compelled to keep a secret from her ever-suspicious husband.

The Secret of Susanna was a sharp contrast to Angelica. It is best termed a comic romp, giving a choice opportunity to Ron Foran to demonstrate his stage skills as well as his musical flair. His entire body, from eyebrows to toes, gets into the act, with just the right touch of exaggeration that recalls Chaplin at times without going overboard. He is balanced by a mute house servant (Evan Thomas), who gestures and conveys a lot with his facial expression, without giving over to total mime, and in no way upstaging Foran. The fine artistry and lyric soprano of Karen Bovenizer were a complete delight. The role gave her the opportunity to be graceful on stage, youthful and romantic, with many musical moments to be treasured, especially when blended in duets with Foran.

Those audience members who slipped out during the intermission missed a fine treat.

The technical staff, accompanists included, is to be lauded for their unheralded role of producing the performances without any noticeable glitches. Rockford is fortunate that the determination of the Mendelssohn Club prevails to offer an annual menu of musical treats that continues to promise spring productions of full operas every second year, alternating with programs of opera arias. It is an important project, giving rich opportunities both to the audience and to the regional performers.

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