‘The Manly Men of Opera’ from ROC

A recital by eight bass singers associated with
the Repertory Opera Company — July 2, 2011
By Bruce Wright

Singers like to joke about the types of roles traditionally associated with various types of voices. Some lament their limitations, while others delight in the rich tradition, descended from the commedia dell’arte, of stock characters brought vividly to life by the great composers and librettists. Mezzos, basses and baritones, in particular, often revel in the colorful, if less than heroic, roles to which they are typically consigned: the buddies, rivals, elders and enemies of tenors and sopranos.
These associations, it’s true, sometimes seem arbitrary and culture-bound. Still, the meanings assigned to voice type deserve some reflection. A recital devoted to just one Fach provides a rare opportunity to do so—to survey the range of roles and moods available to, say, the bass voice.
The standard fathers, villains, and clowns were all in evidence at “The Manly Men of Opera,” a recital of eight fine basses (with perhaps a baritone or two among them) from the Repertory Opera Company, given at First Christian Church in Pomona, July 2. The program delivered on the promise, implied by the tongue-in-cheek title, of testosterone in abundance, and even in excess. But it also offered a surprising variety of expressive modes and styles.
The concert came about as a fundraiser for 21-year-old Sean Hughes, the first singer to benefit from the Repertory Opera Company’s Young Artist Program. As a chorister in two ROC productions, Hughes has been mentored by an experienced ensemble, including those who performed on July 2. “This started out as a kind of coaching session,” ROC artistic director LizBeth Lucca explained to the audience. “Then we decided to share it with you.”
Hughes, who has been singing since he was 12, was recently accepted into the youth workshop hosted by another Southern California company, the Intimate Opera Company. He also received a generous scholarship. It does not, however, fully support his participation in the program—hence the need for the fundraiser.
As one of the recitalists, Hughes put a fine instrument on display. He is endowed precisely with the quality most prized in basses: a rich, dark timbre that is balanced with more than enough ping to carry over an orchestra. Of his three numbers, he particularly excelled on the sentimental standard “Danny Boy,” giving it a heartfelt performance that combined enough schmaltz with sufficient restraint.
For whatever reason, basses are often called upon when comedy is required; patter songs are their peculiar province. Among the talents especially to be noted, Arthur Freeman was a delight to hear. An experienced opera director as well as an accomplished singing actor, Freeman delivered Bartolo’s vengeance aria from from Le nozze di Figaro with a more nuanced characterization than we usually see in a buffoon, his Bartolo revealing a moment of self-doubt in the aria’s middle section as he considers the means of his revenge. Freeman also aced the patter song from Don Pasquale in the title role, ably assisted by Raul Matas as Malatesta. The two complemented each other nicely in a highly energetic performance.
Another seasoned performer who knows how to take and hold the stage was Robert Arce—a Sinatra fan, evidently, as suggested by his choice of two songs made famous by Ol’ Blue Eyes, “It Was a Very Good Year” and “Noche de Ronda.” The latter was written by Mexican composer Agustin Lara, who became famous for his sultry, melancholy love songs with the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1930s. (In order to evade his exclusive contract with RCA Victor, Lara often published under the name of Maria Teresa Lara, his sister, who was listed as composer in the program).
Like Sinatra, Arce has a voice quality that suggests a baritone rather than a bass, yet in a short excerpt, he sang the role of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni with convincing authority. Still, his best number was probably Ko-Ko’s aria from The Mikado, “Titwillow,” which he performed with subtle voice coloring and an exquisite comedic sensibility.
Other members of the company acquitted themselves well. San Wook Kwon provided an appropriate opening to the program with the Prologue from I Pagliacci—a piece that also happens to showcase the wide range of the lower male voice (in this case, properly a baritone) from lyric to dramatic. Kwon also sang Leporello’s catalog aria from Don Giovanni with effective comic touches.
From Neal Dougherty, we heard Prince Gremin’s gorgeous aria from Eugene Onegin, with its lyric line and lovely major-minor modulations. Surely the Russian language is the only reason this aria is less often performed than the standard Italian, French, German, and English repertoire, but Dougherty sounded at home with the language. If his demeanor seemed grave for a piece of music that expresses great joy, he made up for it by performing “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof, with classic show-biz shtick.
The grand operatic style found a champion in Mark Palmer, who sang both “O tu Palermo” from I Vespri Siciliani and “Tu ca nun chiagne.” The latter is one of the great songs in the Neopolitan tradition popularized by Caruso and often associated with tenors. Palmer brought a dark, rich sound to the romantic canzona, but handled the high notes—and the Neopolitan dialect—with tenorial bravura.
Although his sound is bright for a bass, Hervé Blanquart took on two roles that are normally reserved for very dark voices—King Philip in Don Carlo and Sparafucile in Rigoletto—and delivered the necessary low notes, even to Sparafucile’s dramatic, final low F.
The occasional love song allotted to a bass may, in dramatic context (since he rarely gets the girl), have a tragic or even creepy quality. Such is “Il balen del suo sorriso,” the sinister Count di Luna’s aria from Trovatore. This showpiece aria, with its long legato lines and languid ornaments, was performed by Raul Matas, who also concluded the concert with a rousing rendition of the Toreador Song.
Much credit for the concert’s sheer musicality goes to Brian Farrell, coach and accompanist par excellence, ROC’s founding musical director, and a mainstay of the Southern California opera scene. The deft pacing of the program should also be noted; it surely reflects the production chops of Ms. Lucca, who has led ROC for seven years. After four years in Los Angeles, and one touring, the Repertory Opera Company has now spent two years in Pomona. The company is clearly fortunate in its basses. From whom shall we hear next?

Originally published in our Raves forum,
as part of our Community Review program.  

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