Ali and I saw this Donizetti opera at Amore Opera on 3/16. Amore is the stepchild of the famous scrappy downtown company Amato Opera, founded by Tony and Sally Amato in 1948. Amato closed in 2009 and Tony Amato gave all the sets and costumes to the founders of Amore (members of the Amato company and board).
Ali is a singer friend of mine and had sung in a few productions at Amato and Amore, so I thought she'd be the perfect date for *Poliuto*. We had a great time. The chief attraction was the opera itself, which hadn't had a fully staged production in the US since 1859. I had heard of it because Maria Callas and Franco Corelli did a production at La Scala in the 60s. Here they are doing their thing:
I think I understand why the opera isn't done more often. The music isn't particularly inspired, and the drama doesn't compensate for that. The story is about a couple of persecuted Christians in Armenia, the year 259 AD. The tenor and soprano are married, the soprano's former fiancee (the baritone) unexpectedly comes back from the war, he sends them to prison, they get immolated.
The generic quality of the music reminded me of something June Anderson said in her chapter of *Diva* by Helena Matheopolos. I'll paraphrase: "Someone once asked me, What is the most difficult aspect of being a bel canto specialist? You would think my answer would be keeping the notes clear in rapid passages - - or having a long legato line in the slower passages - - or injecting drama into what can be rather static works. But the truth is the most difficult aspect of being a bel canto specialist is remembering what opera I'm in. Really. Donizetti sometimes wrote four or five operas in a year. Sometimes I'm onstage, singing a cabaletta in the key of G, I take a left turn and I'm in another opera." You got a little bit of that crank-it-out feeling in *Poliuto*.
The performance was at a space neither Ali nor I had been to before, the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture on Bleecker Street. It's a cute little auditorium, and a teeny tiny stage. It seemed like the whole stage would fit in my living room.
The overture was a little ratty - - the orchestra wasn't always playing together, and solos were not what I would call convincing. Ali is definitely a glass-half-full kinda gal: she said, "The timpani helps a lot!" The timpani was, indeed, very helpful.
The curtain opened, revealing the set: three steps in the center of the stage, going up to a platform, a few two-dimensional cut-outs of cypress trees, a two-dimensional cut-out of a statue, a three-dimensional bench. The chorus came onstage, wearing costumes from a church pageant. I started to get a little worried about the community theatre vibe, so I decided to pretend I was in a provincial Italian opera house circa 1870. I felt better.
The tenor and soprano, Paolo Buffagni and Sara Beth Pearson, had strong, attractive voices. They were well-matched - - they shared a lack of finesse. The baritone, Robert Garner, was the best singer in the show. A handsome voice, and he knew how to use it. He came the closest to making a silk purse out of the sow's ear.
I'll close with one more photo from the La Scala production - - Callas and baritone Ettore Bastianini: