Unlike, say, ballet, basketball, and mathematics, opera is an endeavor where talent deepens with age. That makes the young talent gracing the stage of the Florida Grand Opera in two current productions a mixed blessing. The cast of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Bellini’s La Sonnambula are a good-looking bunch, with young lovers in both productions played by age-appropriate leads. However, only in La Sonnambula did the singers sound as stunning as they looked.
In The Magic Flute, Lisette Oropesa made for a lovely Pamina and Andrew Bidlack a charming Tamino. Yet these young lovers didn’t seem to feel much passion for each other. Oropesa often sounded tentative and Bidlack’s singing at times lacked support. Jeanette Vecchione delivered a feisty Queen of the Night, but her voice and stage presence fell short of the Queen’s terrifying power. Jonathan Michie was a pleasant surprise as Papageno. That role calls for more comic acting than vocal prowess, yet Michie had both, stealing every scene with his marvelous baritone and peacock strut.
Ironically, the most mature singer on stage, Jordan Bisch as the high priest Sarastro, delivered the least convincing performance. He was outshone by the priest’s speaker, a member of FGO’s Young Artist program, Adam Lau. With his thrilling, true bass, Lau has been a consistent highlight of this season, and we couldn’t help wishing he’d had a turn as the high priest. So much for our theory about age.
None of the singers received much help from the orchestra or the staging. Conductor Andrew Bisantz slowed the pace of Mozart’s score to a crawl. Perhaps that’s because stage director Jeffrey Marc Buchman managed to drain this fantasy of its zany fun. In this production, Tamino is not really a young hero finding his way in a mysterious world. He’s a teenage boy circa the 1950s, falling asleep while reading a fantasy book given to him by his father. This conceit made the young man’s first encounter with the Queen’s randy ladies a bit kinky, but it neutered the opera’s usually spectacular ending. Rather than seeing Sarastro rise in triumph with the chorus, and perhaps the sun, we see a young man waking from a dream, alone, in his bedroom, to the sounds of off-stage singing. Sigh.
The young cast of La Sonnambula seemed to soak up plenty of maturity from stage director and legendary diva Renata Scotto. Where many contemporary directors at FGO and elsewhere have the singers contorting themselves – trying to sing while laying on their backs or bellies — Scotto kept her cast at the center of the stage, upright and facing forward, positioned to make the most of their voices. The minimalist set and period costumes too, designed by Carlo Diappi, kept the focus on the singers. Conductor Ramon Tebar again showed a mastery of the music, and sensitivity to the performances on stage.
With all of that support, Michele Angelini and Rachele Gilmore shone as betrothed lovers nearly parted when a jealous Elvino encounters a sleep-walking Amina in the chambers of the handsome and mysterious Count Rodolfo (an elegant Tom Corbeil). The chemistry crackled across all points of this love triangle, while the entire cast drew steady applause, even in the middle of arias. Gilmore delighted the house with her breathtaking vocal flourishes, delivering bel canto at its best. FGO Young Artist Hye Jung Lee held her own as the envious innkeeper, Lisa, and Adam Lau, once again, excelled as her unrequited lover.
All of the young talent at FGO is likely to get better over the years. Let’s hope they all get the kind of support that will make audiences happy they heard them here first.
La Sonnambula continues on Friday, February 15 and Sunday, February 17. The Magic Flute on Saturday, February 16 at the Arsht Center and Thursday, February 21 and Saturday, February 23 at the Broward Center.