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March 20, 2010

Baltimore Concert Opera tackles 'Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci'

Baltimore Concert Opera might be called the "Lemonade Company" -- assuming you don't mind being reminded of that cloying line about how, when life hands you lemons, you need to learn to make lemonade.

It all started last year when Baltimore Opera Company began its pathetic slide into oblivion. A group of local singers who used to perform regularly with that organization decided to form their own enterprise, Baltimore Concert Opera, based at the Engineers Club and offering "a new way to experience real voices'' -- unstaged operas performed with piano accompaniment. From an initial budget of $1,000 for the inaugural season, BCO grew to a $50,000 operation this season.

You've got to admire all the chutzpah, the energy, the ability to connect with a portion of the opera-loving public. I only wish

I could have admired more of the latest presentation, the venerable double bill of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." There was a real shortage of "real voices" Friday night; maybe the weaker singers will suddenly find extra strengths at the repeat performance Sunday afternoon.

"Pag" had the benefit of a compelling Silvio in baritone Michael Mayes -- rich tone, often beautiful shading, vivid phrasing. Sara Stewart's Nedda was nearly as impressive. She tended to land a little short of pitch in the upper reaches, but her voice revealed considerable promise and she fleshed out the character effectively.

Jimi James offered dramatic fire and, for the most part, solid tonal resources as Tonio. Jeremy Blossey sang valiantly as Beppe. But, in the crucial role of Canio, Kevin Courtemanche seemed in over his head. Aside from a few brightly booming high notes, he was more tenorino than tenor, with little support in the mid and low range, and his Italian came with a heavy American accent. He certainly threw himself into the theatrical side of things (there was a good deal of acting from most of the participants), but that wasn't enough.

Courtemanche sounded even more strained and unfinished as Turridu in "Cav." Francesca Mondanaro brought abundant emotion to the role of Santuzza, but a substantial wobble and a strident, insecure top register as well. Maria Barnet likewise revealed an uneven, mostly harsh tone as Mamma Lucia. It all seemed more like an amateur operatic society for a while there. The picture improved with Jessica Renfro's generally smooth singing as Lola, and basically firm work from James as Alfio. The most exciting and spot-on vocal contribution to "Cav" came from an offstage chorister doing the "Turridu is dead" shouts at the end -- that really hit home.

In both operas, the chorus, prepared by Jim Harp, sang expressively. Doug Han was the hardworking, occasionally messy pianist. Anthony Barrese conducted.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:20 PM | | Comments (4)


I don't think you people were at the same concert we were at. Mr. Mayes was by far the least professional. He rose on his tip-toes to telecast that he was going up the scale and fluttered his hands like a little bird. I didn't even realize he was a baritone; he sounded like an anemic tenor. I think the Sun's reviewer simply likes pretty faces and has no concept of performance. I might be a revelation to those who feel the performances by the other singers were not "professional" to search the internet for reviews of their other performances.

My, kitty has claws. I'm all for letting opera folks have at it on this blog (strange how such folks can be the nastiest of all high-culture society) , but if you're going to come after me, I'll just have to butt in. I've always been interested in voices, not faces. And that baritone simply had the best voice of the lot to my ears. For what it's worth, those ears have been reviewing opera profesisonally for more than 30 years, more than 20 of them for Opera News and England's Opera magazine.) Obviously, we all hear singers differently. But I'd like to think most folks would, like me, find intrusive vibrato, weak pitch, steely tone and all-too-evident straining a problem. The baritone in question didn't have any of those drawbacks, but rather had the notes, the timbre and the style to make a favorable impression. To tell the turth, I didn't enjoy looking at him as he sang; too many pained facial expressions for my taste. I averted my eyes after a few seconds (so much for my interest in supposedly pretty faces), and enjoyed the experience more. TS

Those of you who know me well know I am vehemently opposed to sharing my opinion in this format. The fact that I am driven to do so should indicate how passionately I feel about this group and their efforts to grow an engaged audience for an art form that is near and dear to so many of us. These performances are certain to have done just that. As a singer sitting on the first row of the chorus I was perfectly positioned to see how engaged that audience was, and it was a thrilling thing to behold. From the first notes sounded through the thunderous applause those faces were awash with emotions ranging from rapture to tears. The silences alone, so rarely achieved in any concert hall, were a testament of how taken they were with this performance, poised to hear the next thoughtfully nuanced phrase from such emotionally expressive and powerful singing. The praise of the voices and musicianship could be heard echoed in the crowds throughout intermission as they eagerly returned to their seats for more. This was not a crowd disappointed by anything amateur from any angle, but a crowd moved by what has made those who truly love opera so dedicated to it: exceptional musical scores brought to life through impassioned and stunning vocalism.

I am not what anyone would call a forgiving audience member. I struggle constantly sitting through performances thinking ‘why?’. Why did they hire that singer from Uzbekistan when I know four dozen more talented artists here in Baltimore? Why did the director hire ‘opera Barbie’ or ‘opera Ken-doll’ then try to hide the fact that they hired a pretty thing that can’t sing with gratuitous nudity, cheap laughs or staging spectacles that detract from the music? Why do people not remember that singing is what drew them to opera in the first place? Why do directors think a traditional Bohème isn’t good enough to stand on its own, then choose to perform it in English set in a trailer park in the Mississippi delta? Is dumbing down the art really the only way to cultivate new audiences? Wouldn’t brilliant singing, sensitive playing and relevant stagecraft do that on its own? After all, it has worked for the past four hundred years…

I can honestly say this weekend’s concert opera performances are the first time since the premier of Lizzie Borden at City Opera that I have not caught myself asking ‘why?’. Instead I walked home from both performances remembering why. Why I was drawn to love this art in the first place. Why we all make such sacrifices personally and professionally for it every day. The astounding singing at the Engineer’s Society this weekend did everything imaginable to show the audience why these works are important, why they are relevant and why they remain masterpieces.

This is an organization run by true professionals, with an amazing ability to bring in some astounding talent. This is no frills opera, with nothing to hide any sort of mediocrity behind, nothing to distract from the heart of the score. As someone who has been on both sides of the curtain of numerous professional opera stages with highly renowned singers throughout the years, I can say with absolute certainty that almost every artist engaged by this company this season has already or could excel in that arena. It is also not news to anyone reading this that the former Baltimore Opera Chorus was well known to be one of the best in the country. Many of its members and its incredible chorus master proved that again this weekend; certainly the tears in the eyes of so many of the patrons at the end of Sunday’s “Regina Coeli” gave testament to that fact. I cannot even begin to express how humbly grateful I am to have the opportunity to continue working with such amazing and sensitive artists.

Was either performance perfect? Of course not. If you desire perfection perhaps you should write something completely fictitious and caustic on a blog such as this and then hide behind a pseudonym as two previous commenters chose to do. After that, by all means stay home and listen to a heavily edited CD or two. However, if you want to hear why these operas have endured and continue to do so, spend a little time letting Baltimore Concert Opera show you.

Tim and Carol, My final paragraoph was in no way directed at either of your commentaries, but at two previous comments that seem to have been removed from the blog.I apologize if there was any confusion on this point.

You would be one to know about nasty, considering what you said about tenor Kevin Courtemanche. There was nothing wrong with his mid or low notes; his performance was fine. Your comment about "Turridu is dead" being chilling is about the most subliminally nasty thing I've ever read.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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