Thursday, October 24, 2013


Polish-American Cultural Center
October 20

Roberto (Matthew Miles) gets a taste of Villi vengeance.

Heartbreak. Betrayal. A tragic death avenged by frenzied ghosts.

If it all sounds implausible in a nondescript building in Slavic Village, that’s only because you didn’t see Opera Circle’s production of Le Villi. With its usual combination of pluck, charm and cheerful enthusiasm, the company put on a spirited performance of Puccini’s first opera that filled every seat in a small dance hall on Sunday afternoon. Theater-in-the-round staging put the action literally in the audience’s laps, with plenty of room for energetic choreography.

Composed in 1883, Le Villi is a short two-act work that enjoyed some early success. Gustav Mahler conducted the Hamburg premiere in 1892, and the Metropolitan Opera double-billed it with Cavaleria Rusticana in a 1908 performance conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Still, it’s not hard to see why Le Villi isn’t staged very often. It’s like watching the beginning and end of an opera – a strong opening act and a strong closing act, with everything that happens in between summarized by a narrator. And it’s a hybrid that calls for a small cast to be equally good at singing, acting and dancing.

But there are flashes of the Puccini to come, and the story is promising: Anna, who lives in a village in the Black Forest, pleads with her lover Roberto not to leave on a trip, fearing the worst. Roberto leaves and soon falls into a life of sin, leaving Anna to wither and die. When he finally returns, Anna’s father Guglielmo calls on the Villi, wild female spirits who live in the forest, to avenge his daughter. They summon up Anna’s ghost and literally dance Roberto to death.

A victim of love.
Soprano Dorota Sobieska was in good voice as Anna, hitting soaring notes of passion from her opening aria and maintaining a feverish intensity. Tenor Matthew Miles matched her emotional fervor as Roberto, showing an impressive, at times even heroic voice. The two were particularly good in duets, singing in great dramatic tones that made it clear why early critics dismissed the opera as warmed-over Wagner.

The supporting cast was also solid. A seven-person chorus opened the performance with a sharp song and dance routine, and sounded good singing offstage in the second act, warning of Roberto’s impending doom. Baritone Jeremy Gilpatric made the most of his brief appearances as Guglielmo, with vocals that were rough in spots but convincing in his heartfelt pleas for vengeance.

The Villi were played by four dancers who were fluid and accomplished, captivating in their blue-green fairy costumes. But they were hampered by the choreography, which never advanced much beyond running and jumping. A professional dancer and choreographer, Sabatino Verlezza, was brought in to create their movements, so the weak results were puzzling. The routines might have looked better on an elevated stage. But even that would likely not have saved the key climactic moment of Le Villi, the dance of death, which came off as more amateurish than deadly.

Opera Circle’s less-is-more approach was most effective in the music, which was played by a piano, violin and cello trio led by Jacek Sobieski at the keyboard. The sound was ideal for the space and more than enough to support the singing, which actually benefited from the tight quarters, giving the voices a compressed power and impact.

As always, there were some awkward moments. For no apparent reason a walking tree came out to open the second act, nearly getting hung up in the curtain hanging across the doorway entrance. For a few seconds, it could have been an Our Gang comedy. But the Opera Circle crew is nothing if not professional, and the players recovered quickly, pulling the audience back into the cascading tragedy – no small feat for singers who had their backs to the musicians most of the time, and no conductor to follow.

In a city otherwise rich in classical music, opera is a gaping hole. Dorota Sobieska, her husband Jacek and their daughter Wanda are tireless in their efforts to fill it with minimal resources. For that alone, their productions are an inspiration.

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