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BWW Opera Review: Few Sparks from Opera Orchestra in Donizetti's Formulaic PARISINA D'ESTE

Angela Meade as Leonora in
IL TROVATORE at the Met this year.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Those of us with long enough memories remember some exciting nights at Opera Orchestra of New York, with Eve Queler at the helm--Massenet's LE CID and Donizetti's GEMMA DI VERGY come to mind. It's reputed that PARISINA D'ESTE, another Donizetti , made quite a stir with Montserrat Caballe in the spotlight at Carnegie Hall in 1974--but anyone expecting history to repeat itself when Queler mounted the opera for Angela Meade at the Rose Theatre last week was wildly disappointed.

PARISINA comes from the extremely productive period (1830-1835) that includes some of Donizetti's most famous works, including ANNA BOLENA, L'ELISIR D'AMORE, LUCREZIA BORGIA and, most importantly, LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR. But after a season in New York filled with Donizettis, PARISINA seems a pretty formulaic piece, though even his second-best has some spectacular moments.

Briefly, Parisina is the second wife of Duke Azzo, who fears she has betrayed him with another man, as had his first wife, Matilde. When he confronts her, she admits to her infidelity with Ugo and he nearly kills her. Instead, he turns his anger toward Ugo,and seeks vengeance even after his minister Ernesto confesses that Ugo is Azzo's son,whom Matilde left in his care. As the curtain comes down, Azzo shows Parisina Ugo's corpse.

Though Queler did her best to keep things moving along, for once, it seemed that she'd bitten off more than she could chew. Granted, the event seems to have been a last-minute event--there didn't to see much of a hint of it until well into March--and it's a tribute to the players that they were able to get it in place, considering it is unlikely they had this rarity (super-rarity) ready to go.

Still, it was a pretty shaky affair, even from Meade, who has the highest profile of the cast and has had some major bel canto successes (BOLENA, NORMA) at the Met. Yes, she has the prima donna trappings down pat, but on this occasion at least, she didn't always deliver the goods. Though she frequently offered compelling ornamentation and (mostly) secure high notes, her trademark floating pianissimos, were DOA this time around, a rather troubling occurrence.

Baritone Yunpeng Wang, who did a good job in the small but showy role of Prince Yamadori in the Met's MADAMA BUTTERFLY earlier this season, was a forthright, stand-up Azzo, Duke of Florence and Parasina's husband, the heavy of the piece. Though one could imagine a larger voice making a bigger impact, he delivered a suave, urgent performance . The young bass Sava Vemic, who was outstanding in LA SONNAMBULA at Juilliard this winter, was sonorous and well-studied as Ernesto, the Duke's minister and guardian of Ugo. Soprano Mia Pafumi was confident and sweet-voiced as Parisina's servant, Imelda. Less effective was tenor Aaron Blake, making his New York debut, delivering a pale and unassured performance, as Ugo, Parasina's love and Azzo's heretofore unknown son.

Well into her 80s, Queler showed remarkable stamina, on her feet for the nearly three-hour opera. Still, she couldn't overcome the fact that the orchestra frequently sounded under-rehearsed, particularly among the violins and in some of the brass instrumental solos (though principal cellist Scott Ballantyne provided some beautiful accompaniment to several arias). The New York Choral Ensemble, under Italo Marchini, was fine in Donizetti's abundant ensemble work.

Clearly, this wasn't one of Opera Orchestra's best events, but don't chalk off Queler yet. There are still some tasty fish to fry in the bel canto repertoire and other areas where the Maestro and her musicians have performed so admirably in the past, most recently with the legendary Mariella Devia in ROBERTO DEVEREUX two years ago. I, for one, can't wait to see what Queler comes up with next.

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