Florentine Opera downsizes gracefully for English Baroque double-bill

May 15, 2011

Patricia Risley and Craig Verm in the title roles of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" at Florentine Opera. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Like most opera companies these days, Florentine Opera is looking for ways to economize — especially after the expensive misfire of Don Davis’s Rio de Sangre, a work commissioned by the company and given its world premiere here last October.

The venerable Milwaukee company is ending its 77th season on a novel if less ambitious note with a double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, which opened Friday night at the Marcus Center.

The two mythic tales with their intertwined tragic lovers make such a complementary pairing that it’s surprising more companies don’t present both early English operas in one evening. Friday night’s opening performance needed some polishing in both staging and vocalism but for the most part effectively closes Florentine Opera’s 77th season on a graceful note.

Presenting these chamber operas in the Marcus Center’s 500-seat Vogel Hall rather than the company’s usual Uihlein venue provided the right intimate scale. Audience members were encouraged to bring their drinks into the hall, reviving a historically informed if courageous tradition.

The staging by Florentine’s general director William Florescu presented the works as plays within plays with the chorus clad in gold and white livery setting the stage and acting as stagehands, moving scenery about and handling sound effects as well as its primary role of vocal ensemble.

Patricia Risley proved a mostly worthy Dido in the Purcell opera. Possessed of a rich dusky voice, the statuesque mezzo delivered an expressive Ah, Belinda, yet on opening night Dido’s Lament didn’t quite come off with Risley’s singing too heavily underlined when a purer, more elegant approach would do. Also having Risley stagger around the stage after Dido drinks her poison was a visual distraction to the opera’s most rapt moment.

Dramatically, her characterization seemed unfocused and a work in progress, more imperious than vulnerable. Risley was unaided by a disastrous costume getup — knee-boots, black pants and purple waist wrap — that made her look like a fashion-challenged dominatrix.

As Aeneas, Craig Verm didn’t get much help from costuming either, his helmet with small white feather eliciting audience chuckles at his entrance. Vocally, however, the young singer was most impressive, demonstrating an ample and imposing baritone.

Greer Davis was a bright-toned and agile Belinda albeit with words often indecipherable. Jean Broekhuizen was a well-sung if decidedly dull Witch, with her cohorts Julia Elsie Hardin and Kristin Ngchee finding more fun in their characterizations. Ian Howell as the Spirit and Matthew Richardson as the Sailor proved worthy in their small roles.

The first part of the bill, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis was admirable if also variable in details, with most of the principal singers doing double duty in both operas.

In this more significant role of Adonis, Verm was even more impressive both vocally and dramatically (also displaying a chiseled six-pack apt for the role of the god-like hero). His stentorian baritone proved a bit overwhelming at times in the small room but the young singer brought great sensitivity and expressive detailing to Adonis’s death scene. With more seasoning and experience, one can see Verm making an ideal Billy Budd in a few years.

As Venus, Greer Davis sounded over-parted in the role with her hard, shallow soprano failing to expand at key moments.

Ian Howell displayed a pure and flexible countertenor as Cupid, deftly avoiding potential embarrassment in this role. His little bits of comic stage business were mostly amusing but jarringly inappropriate for the final scene, which clearly needed more rehearsal and a firmer directorial hand.

Jean Broekhuizen as the Huntsman and Erica Schuller, Julia Elisee Hardin and Scott Johnson as shepherds and shepherdess handled their assignments solidly. In both operas Dani Kuepper provided solo Terpsichorean contributions to the dance interludes.

After a rugged start to the evening, Christopher Larkin drew largely polished and idiomatic playing from the ensemble’s 11 string players, leading from the harpichord.

Venus and Adonis and Dido and Aeneas run through May 22. florentineopera.org; 414-291-5700; 800–326-7372.

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