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AVA’s L’italiana sails despite evening’s perfect storm of challenges

Operatoonity.com reviewL’italiana In Algeri presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Composer: Gioachino Rossini; libretto: Angelo Anelli based on his earlier text set by Luigi Mosca
Live performance: Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Goodhart Hall: Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA

The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), Philadelphia’s premiere opera training academy, routinely transports nearly every production to the Greater Philadelphia suburbs including the Centennial Hall at The Haverford School. This is a much heralded tradition that operagoers appreciate. It’s a lovely hall and very convenient for suburban opera lovers.

The AVA can’t be faulted that the day the company was scheduled to offer L’italiana In Algeri in Haverford was  frigidly cold for November in Pennsylvania–below freezing all day. They discovered their venue’s heating system was inoperable and had to quickly relocate nearby for that evening’s show.

The cast of L’italiana in Algeri, presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts, 2014

Though the venue was toasty warm, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr College had no orchestra pit, so the entire orchestra had to pile onto the stage for the performance, which left only the proscenium available for performers. Nor could the set from Centennial Hall be readily installed at Goodhart. Lastly, the facility could not accommodate supertitles, so none were offered, at least to those audience members sitting in the balcony, such as this reviewer.

Despite all these challenges, the performers were there to put on a show and perform they did. They seemed unfazed by the musicians behind them, the lack of set around them, and  in the absence of supertitles, every audience member laser-focused on their performances, trying to extract meaning from every note, every gesture, and every facial expression.

I suppose the company had a bit of fortune that all this occurred during a Rossini dramma giocoso. The storyline is a happy marriage of nefarious plotting against a pair of deserving and attractive lovers, which is foiled, of course, so the evening can be all wrapped up in a happy-ending bow.

The Turkish Bey Mustafà is bored with his harem, wants an Italian girl, and, lo and behold, a made-to-order beauty, Isabella, washes up on shore with a band of pirates:

Isabella and the band of shipwrecked pirates

As the much-admired L’italiana, mezzo-soprano Hanna Ludwig delivered a sturdy performance. The role was written for a contralto, and at times, it seemed the lowest notes required fell outside of this mezzo’s comfort range.

Mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig as Isabella

She did have a great sense of comic timing, especially with the band of shipwrecked pirates.

As the Italian slave Lindoro, Australian tenor Alasdair Kent had that all important Rossini tenor ping to his voice. His lovelorn affect was endearing. His voice cracked a few times throughout the night,  but his acting and onstage presence were solid.

Tenor Alasdair Kent sang the role of the lovesick Lindoro

Best performance of the evening honors must go to bass-bariton André Courville as the Turkish Bey Mustafà. His powerful voice and spot-on characterization never wavered. He was imperious and comical at the same time. As Mustafà, he appeared completely unfazed by the change of venue, lack of meaningful set, orchestra playing behind him, and clambered onto and off his makeshift throne with aplomb. His scenes with Michael Adams as Isabella’s would-be lover Taddeo were magical. Bravo, Mr. Courville.

From left to right: baritone Michael Adams as Taddeo and bass-baritone André Courville as Mustafà.

Because the ensemble exchanges roles throughout the run of the show–the principals are typically double-cast–the AVA chorus is perpetually excellent and a highlight of any AVA show. And even though the role was smaller, Anush Avetisyan as the discarded wife Elvira and her clear soprano with its bell-like timbre brightened the stage with each entrance.

Alasdair Kent as Lindoro and Anush Avetisyan as Elvira

Costumes by Val Starr were lush and lovely–a sparkling cut above. While the turquoise palette used to represent Algier was so appealing, the portable blocks which seemed to be configured and reconfigured incessantly and nonsensically became distracting. Credit director Dorothy Danner for instilling in her cast a “show-must-go-on” ethos, or perhaps that credit is shared with the AVA faculty.

I was expecting the AVA orchestra to overpower the singers–the number of pieces alone (31!) was foreboding–but was pleasantly surprised by the control that conductor Richard A. Raub exerted over his musicians–their contributions were balanced and beautiful.

Not every company could’ve salvaged a show following a perfect storm of trouble, but they all deserve credit for weathering the unexpected woes. The cast was richly rewarded with applause and cheers at curtain call.

And  should this ever happen again, to the behind-the-scenes folks who did a heroic job notifying subscribers regarding the change of venue, don’t forget that those reviewing the show need to know this information in a timely fashion, too.  No reviewer likes to get a parking ticket just because she tried to make curtain at a dark and unfamiliar venue.

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AVA’s Manon is playful, pretty, and purposeful

Operatoonity.com review: Manon presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Live performance: Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Centennial Hall, The Haverford School
4.5 stars

four and a half stars



Manon, AVA, 2014

Julia Dawson as Javotte and Anush Avetisyan as Poussette | Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Pretty in pink. Playful and sensual. The Academy of Vocal Arts’ (AVA) new production of Manon by Charles Massenet was a sensual, floridly elegant success, owing to purposeful direction by Tito Capobianco and solid execution.

Surely the inspired set design by Peter Harrison, which paid homage to a scandalously famous rococo painting, and the stunning costumes by Val Starr made this the most beautiful production this reviewer has ever seen at the AVA.

Since a work of art suggestive in its time served as a muse for the production team, the show also had an earthy verismo quality to it. While the powdered wigs and brocade ensembles lent the show a Mozartian sensibility,  the passionate clutches and languishing sighs were all Puccini. Verismo Massenet? You had to see it to believe it.

Daniel Noyola Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Daniel Noyola as Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Manon is a classic “tart-with-a-heart” story that sets the title character on a life journey that is novel-worthy in scope and emotional depth. Her journey is exceedingly hard to capture, even in a five-act opera, though many companies have made an effort to do so. The AVA’s most recent production certainly made a game and valiant go of it.

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

As Manon, Sydney Mancasola was more believable and sympathetic as the virginal girl headed to a convent whose life is forever altered when she meets La Chevalier Des Grieux and finds love. Sometimes singers are swallowed up by the too-loud AVA orchestra and forced to push too much to be heard, but there was no danger of this happening to Mancasola. Can a singer be too loud? Yes, I believe at times she was. Though there was power and beauty in her singing, she needs to back off those pince-nez shattering high notes at times. She was, however, a delight in the much anticipated Gavotte scene–confident, charming, and vocally arresting.

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act . Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

As Chevalier Des Grieux, Mexican tenor Diego Silva turned in a worthy performance. He has an Italianate quality to his singing and also to his onstage affect. Singing this French opera was a bit beyond his reach though he had many shining moments that evening and a stage presence that is endearing. Des Grieux also makes a life-altering journey, from love at first sight, to hating Manon for her excess, and then loving her in spite of her shortcomings, which he conveyed with conviction, despite his tender years.

All the men in supporting roles were simply splendid–bass-baritone Daniel Noyola as the scheming Monsieur de Bretigny, baritone Michael Adams as Manon’s cousin Lescaut,  tenor AVA Alumnus Jeffrey Halili ’06 as the opportunistic Guillot Morfontaine, and bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as the manipulative Le Comte des Grieux. With all these men consipiring against her, Manon never had a chance for a truly happy life.

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

It also must be said that the women in the supporting and ensemble roles were delightful–beautiful to see and hear. Brava to Anush Avetisyan as Pousette, Julia Dawson as Javotte, and Alexandra Schenck as Rosette, whose talents and feminine wiles lured Manon to explore her innermost desires for love and luxury. Surely one of the advantages of seeing AVA productions is that the company members not singing leads in the current show comprise the ensemble. Every choral number is a treat.

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA '06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA ’06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Massenet’s duets are also masterful, but I still miss the precision and impact of Mozart and Verdi in his quartets and quintets, which seem to spill out like unruly, leggy blossoms at the end of the growing season. Perhaps the small group numbers are harder to sing but those parts of the show seemed to be the weakest.

As for Christofer Macatsoris’ conducting, the tempi were perfect–critical in a long work that the score not drag. A little less volume might have helped the singers to rein in their occasional vocal “shouting.”

Overall, a winning production of a beautiful opera in the repertoire, and worthy of the generous ovation accorded them all at the evening’s end.


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