Two thirds of Puccini's
was almost enough.
Academy of Vocal Arts presented Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi without their companion piece Suor Angelica but with plenty of up-close theatricality in the tiny Helen Corning Warden Theater. Repertoire is often dictated by what the singers are ready for in this postgraduate operatic finishing school, and though some high notes failed to float at the Saturday opening, Tito Capobianco's stage direction - in which every character had thoughtful, well-defined perimeters - seemed to dictate solid vocal choices. Having visited AVA for several years, veteran director Capobianco successfully circumvents the stage's considerable space restrictions, perhaps better than anybody, and does so handsomely.
The singers I'd most like to hear again weren't always where you'd expect. For all their 50-minute brevity, both operas begin with lots of atmospheric subplotting. In Il Tabarro, the opera's fatal romantic triangle unfolds amid freight-barge lowlifes, among them the eccentric scavenger Frugola. The character was sung with unforced, full-bodied tone and acted with casual charisma by Hannah Ludwig - so much that you barely noticed that she was saddled with a fairly silly hat (the production's only misstep). Other colleagues were still finding a good vocal fit with Puccini style, including key characters Vanessa Vasquez, as Giorgetta, and Marco Cammarota, as Luigi.
Jared Bybee carried the show with his smoldering characterization of the cuckolded husband, whose snapping point was effectively timed and sung with his formidable baritone. Conductor Christofer Macatsoris induced operatic cold sweats, making Il Tabarro a convincing whole, as opposed to a warm-up for the rest of the triptych.
Richard Raub conducted Gianni Schicchi at a good comic clip while Capobianco brought out the often-lost social stratification of the 13th-century Florence setting. The title character is usually a rogue, as he impersonates a recently deceased patriarch to dictate a new will that doesn't leave everything to the local monastery. Here, Schicchi is "new money" with more smarts and class than the "old money" - an approach enabled by a strong vocal and theatrical counterbalance from Allegra De Vita, who played the Maggie Smith/Downton Abbey role.
Again, the best singing wasn't in typical places. Nathan Milholin was said to be too indisposed to sing the title role, but mimed onstage while Ethan Simpson sang from the orchestra pit with a fine mid-weight baritone and comic authority. The hit aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" went well with Karen Barraza, though her boyfriend was more distinctively sung by Alasdair Kent with light English tenor made for Schubert. I still missed the emotional redemption of the missing Il Trittico installment, Suor Angelica. No big deal.