A Rare Encounter With an Arresting Aroldo

May 4, 2014

WEST EDGE OPERA

Marie PletteThere was a moment near the end of Act 1, Scene 2 in Aroldo when West Edge Opera’s concert of this Verdi rarity seemed about to come unglued. The tenor in the title role was singing poorly. The plot veered toward the cloak-and-dagger absurd: “The book will reveal a fatal mystery,” one character warned, about a love letter once concealed in its pages that threatened to provoke a duel between an enraged father and the reluctant ex-lover of his daughter. The small and erratic “orchestra” (three string players, a clarinet and piano) ventured uneasily into one of the composer’s borderline comical scene setters, with its tip-toeing plucked chords and shivery slivers of melody.

Then Verdi, as Verdi will do, took over. As the forces of love, revenge, and honor gripped the principals, an emotionally dense ensemble bloomed open. Surging arpeggios rose from the instrumental band. A chorus sang out in fervent prayer, pierced here and there by anguished cries from the soloists. It was violent and wrenching and sublime all at once, all of it unmistakably Verdian.

For some listeners, Sunday afternoon’s performance at the Northbrae Community Church in the Berkeley hills struck an even more familiar note. While Aroldo is largely unknown today, its original source, Stiffelio, has had more currency since its re-discovery in 1968. Thwarted by censors who objected to the portrayal of a cuckolded Protestant minister, Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave revised the Stiffelio storyline into one about a 12th-century Saxon Crusader, Aroldo (or Harold), who returns home to discover his wife’s infidelity. Verdi composed a new fourth act and made other musical changes. Aroldo premiered in 1857 and received other productions around Italy in the subsequent decade before receding.

Mounted as the last of West Edge’s “Opera Medium Rare” productions for the season, this Verdi adventure offered fitful rewards.

Mounted as the last of West Edge’s “Opera Medium Rare” productions for the season, this Verdi adventure offered fitful rewards. Some of the singing was arresting and dramatic. Baritone Jo Vincent Parks was solid throughout as Egbert, the adulterous Mina’s father, rising to an extended cabaletta about family dishonor, full of tortured melodic swoons and breathy near-silences, at the top of Act 3. Soprano Marie Plette may not have had all the musical chops for Mina’s soaring meditations, but her voice conveyed urgency throughout and a moving self-abnegation in the final act. She carried off several lengthy, expansive arias admirably, most notably the heart-tearing one in which she asks Aroldo to “Judge me.”

From the grand to the granular, Verdi had an uncanny sense of felt life ... there was no doubt that Aroldo is a master’s living, breathing, creation worthy of a live encounter.

Bass-baritone Paul Cheak was somber and commanding in the smaller role of a monk and wise counselor to Egbert. Tenor Sigmund Seigel, as the elusive lover Godwin, added a welcome touch of acting, conveyed through a few well-chosen gestures, that the other singers eschewed. A little more of that, even a bit more eye contact among the singers, would enhance these concert performances that fix both the singers’ and the audience’s attention on the music stands.

Pedro Rodelas struggled as Aroldo. His voice lacked flexibility and depth, and his reach at the high end frequently fell short of the tonal mark. The musicians, under conductor and pianist Jonathan Khuner’s hard-working musical direction, had their own intonation and rhythmic problems. The orchestral reduction, which made too little use of clarinetist Karen Wells, felt thinner than it did in West Edge’s recent Donizetti opera, Caterina Cornaro. Verdi’s more varied musical and dramatic terrain felt too sketchily canvassed here.

Aroldo, focused as it is on the fallout from a brief affair, is an ambitious undertaking. The chorus doubles as a church choir and a band of shepherds and other rustics. The long arias are challenging and the ensembles complex. The musical and dramatic textures expose weak spots. The rewritten fourth act ranges from spare. unaccompanied singing to a rainstorm to a rather hastily rendered catharsis of forgiveness.

For all its shortcomings, the West Edge concert did deliver some Verdi highs and subtle pleasures, like the little curled figure from the cello conjuring the mood of a woman alone in a cemetery. From the grand to the granular, Verdi had an uncanny sense of felt life. The pulse may have been uneven here, but there was no doubt that Aroldo is a master’s living, breathing, creation worthy of a live encounter.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.