BWW Opera Review: Vertical Player Repertory Disinters Pacini's MALVINA DI SCOZIA

BWW Opera Review: Vertical Player Repertory Disinters Pacini's MALVINA DI SCOZIA

BWW Opera Review: Vertical Player Repertory Disinters Pacini's MALVINA DI SCOZIA
From left: Javier Ortiz, Aram Tchobanian,
Ben Bloomfield, Angela Leson, Karolina Pilou,
Katya Gruzglina. Photo: Judith Barnes

As part of the New York Opera Fest, Brooklyn's scrappy Vertical Player Repertory ventured into Manhattan's Christ and St. Stephen's Church near Lincoln Center, bringing with it a true rarity: Giovanni Pacini's bel canto-ish MALVINA DI SCOZIA, which dates from 1851. And while it was good to hear a work that competed in its day with the operas of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti (not to mention the up-and-coming Verdi), "rarity" isn't necessarily synonymous with "ready for prime time," even in Vertical's spirited production.

Pacini wrote 70-odd operas between 1813 and 1873, none of which have entered the standard repertoire. Judging by MALVINA--performed here in a vocal-piano score heroically prepared from scratch by the evening's conductor, Hans Schevellis, accompanied by Doug Han--it's understandable why this one never got past the starting gate and hasn't been heard since a 1862 performance in Malta.

The composer seemed to care little for the conventions of the day--despite a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR fame nearly 20 years earlier, as well as several other Donizettis and a couple of Verdis, including LUISA MILLER and a draft of IL TROVATORE. Yes, he titled the piece for the nominal heroine and included a mad scene (that was not very mad at all), but Malvina, a poignant, lithe-voiced Angela Leson, spends way too much time waiting in the wings or as part of a notable quartet, quintet or septet.

Meanwhile, the baritone (a fierce Benjamin Bloomfield as Arturo, heir to the throne) and contralto (a scene-stealing, earthy-voiced Karolina Pilou as Morna, his arranged bride) get to tear things up quite nicely. Bass Stephan Kirchgraber did well as King Malcom and even the captain of the Archers, Rodwaldo, suave bass-baritone Javier Ortiz, has a small but notable role. Soprano Katya Gruzlina was graceful as Malvina's confidante.

While Malvina--Arturo's secret lover--does well as part of several ensemble pieces, she doesn't have a juicy aria of her own until she relives the death of her two young children at the hands of the tenor, Wortimer (the tight-voiced Aram Tchobanian as the King's advisor and her spurned lover) in Act III and even then, it's not really a showstopper.

Wait: The tenor as the villain? It seems the lead tenor of the San Carlo Opera in Naples, where the opera premiered (and Pacini had been director), took his leave and his role was rewritten for a leading baritone. The loss of the tenor wasn't the only problem facing the libretto; it was much-tampered with by censors before the premiere because of objections by Naples' royals to its subject, the contract murder of Ines de Castro, mistress of Crown Prince Pedro, by his father King Alfonso. (A fading Cammarano offered a version of an opera named for these lovers that he wrote for another composer in about 1835--same story, now with a change of action to a less-objectionable Scotland in the 10th century.)

Under the careful direction of Vertical's founder and artistic director Judith Barnes, and Schevellis' taut baton--and some good contributions by the Vertical Rep chorus, who get to recap some off-stage horros--the evening moved along with few lulls and the opportunity to see what the mostly forgotten Pacini had to offer. But forgotten he is likely to remain.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.