Verismo Rarities, Teatro Grattacielo

It could be a justly ignored trifle or a work
underappreciated in bygone days, or a work overappreciated that gives you a clue to what the
tastes of that era were. Audiences liked this? What did they like about it? And sometimes, when
you least expect it, it’s a pleasure from start to finish.

Take Leoni’s L’Oracolo, now — Antonio Scotti recorded a bit of it (he played wicked Cim-Fen,
proprietor of an opium den in San Francisco’s Chinatown), and there has even been a complete
recording with Tito Gobbi and Joan Sutherland. The opera was rather popular at the Met in its
day, during and after World War I — but how many of us have actually experienced a live
performance? And as for Montemezzi’s swan song, L’Incantesimo — how many have even
heard of it? Composed for radio during the Mussolini administration, it did get a staging at the
Verona Arena nearly sixty years ago.

But you never know if you don’t go hear them, and sometimes that hearing provides
astonishment, surprise in the amount of pleasure available. One of the most enjoyable operas I’ve
heard this season was Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, performed by the American Symphony
Orchestra last September at Fisher Hall. How much more awake we all were, alert to the
unknown, the forgotten, the ignored, when Smyth’s expert orchestration came flooding out at us
like some Cornish valkyrie?

You have to try it, or you will regret the chance lost. That, I am happy to report, was the
conclusion of a happily dazed band of opera lovers at Fisher Hall again last Tuesday, when
Teatro Grattacielo, an organization that presents one concert a year of a forgotten (often
unknown) work of the verismo era. It was their thirteenth season and the prima donna withdrew
with a sore throat, and the other singers were far from well known, and the double bill of
one-acts particularly obscure — but no matter. However much we may have shrugged going in
— there was a lot of “Here we go for another one” among a fatalistic crowd — all eyes sparkled
and a happy babble of comment filled the air at intermission: If L’Oracolo is not a masterpiece of
the first water (did verismo produce masterpieces of the first water? Isn’t that besides the realistic
point of the form?), the opera is a thing of beauty, melodious and passionate and odd, filled with
blood and lovely tunes and horrible destinies. Any decent orchestra will have fun playing it (there
were times with this one when one wasn’t sure if the teeth-grating harmony was intentionally
“oriental”or off key), and the singers all have parts that make it clear just how hard they are
working. Best of all, Teatro Grattacielo had filled the cast with excellent voices, healthy, loud,
urgent, and thoroughly schooled in the Italian manner.

Todd Thomas, a baritone of imposing malice — a man born to sing Scarpia, which he does —
sang the monstrous Cim-Fen. Ashraf Sewailam, a young Egyptian bass of distinction, sang his
nemesis, Win-Shee. Asako Tamura made a striking impression as Ah-Joe, one of opera’s many
delicate oriental maidens with a larynx of steel (Teatro Gratticielo has already presented
Mascagni’s Iris), and Arnold Rawls sounded attractive and ardent in the short but high-lying role
of her unfortunate true love, San-Lui. Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee, as the wealthy businessman at the
center of the plot, and Mabel Ledo in the brief role of a careless nursemaid, made one wish to
hear more from them.

L’Incantesimo was another matter. Almost the end of the line for verismo and, indeed, for Italian
melodic opera, it is Montemezzi’s tribute to the fairy tale works of Richard Strauss and his ilk,
with a full, Germanic orchestra swirling us through a slight drama of lover (tenor) versus
husband unable to love (baritone), contesting for the devotion of a wife more symbol than
woman, all of them under the contrivances of the enchanter of the title. (This is the rare verismo
fable with a happy ending.) José Luis Duval sang the desperately high-lying role of the lover as
well as one could expect — he will find the awkward Strauss tenor repertory congenial, or at
least possible — and Mr. Thomas scored again as a bravura heavy: hard, haughty, loveless
Count Folco. Ms. Tamura gamely followed up her Ah-Joe by replacing an ailing colleague as
Giselda, who doesn’t have to do much, but must do it at the top of her range, with the entire
orchestra competing fortissimo. She, like Mr. Thomas, sounded at the evening’s end as if they
gobble this stuff for aperitifs and could happily sing more — which cannot physically be true.
Mr. Sewailam, in the brief but significant role of the sorcerer, was again highly effective.

For mastery of the forces he deployed, Montemezzi certainly deserves high marks for
L’Incantesimo — though his finale is cruelty to singers. But for substance, for personality, for
offering a story that took us to new or intriguing places, the opera seemed thin: a lot of bark, little
bite. This was not the general reaction to L’Oracolo, which a performance like this one makes us
think worthy of another look, even a staging (despite its hokey contrivances: opium addicts,
kidnappings, mad scenes, murders, sewers — it’s all Chinatown, Jake), perhaps on a double bill
with Puccini’s veristic Tabarro, another slice-of-brutal-life show. L’Oracolo was a reminder that
the era did not only produce Cav and Pag.

The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra was led, and the singers inspired, and the entire performance a
triumph for David Wroe, a conductor new to me. The only down sides of the entire event were
the unfortunate inclination of the company to use over-miked electronic sound effects — in this
case a foghorn and a rooster — at moments when subtlety would have made the point better.

John Yohalem

image_description=L’Oracolo (Franco Leoni) and L’Incantesimo (Italo Montemezzi) at Teatro Grattacielo
product_title=L’Oracolo (Franco Leoni)
With Todd Thomas, Ashraf Sewailam, Arnold Rawls, Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee, Asako Tamura and Mabel Ledo.

L’Incantesimo (Italo Montemezzi)
With Todd Thomas, Ashraf Sewailam, Asako Tamura and Ashraf Sewailam.

Teatro Grattacielo, conducted by David Wroe. Avery Fisher Hall, November 13.