True blue opera nuts don’t understand this point of view but for many concertgoers, hearing opera once a year is about enough. We love it and then we need to move on to one of the other performing arts.
But the Italian National Opera, which performed Sunday evening at the Maine Center for the Arts in Orono, left everyone — the buff and the rebuffer — wanting more. More tenors of heroic quality. More sopranos in crystalline agony. More soaring Italianate singing of rich, dramatic melodies.
The members of this touring group gave strong vocal characterizations to Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s well-worn favorite “I Pagliacci.” Much credit goes to the captivating Marco Tittoto, conductor of the fine, live orchestra that brought the spirited music to life. Tittoto kept close control of the singers, moved the music along at tempos that were romantically lyrical, and he got arduously balanced harmony from the voices.
There’s no celebrating the stories in this inevitable pairing of smallish operas about crimes of passion in which women say to their men: “Even if you beat me, I’d still forgive you.” And men say to their women: “If you’re lying, I’ll rip your heart out.” But the achievement of choral sophistication without ever sounding harsh or muddled was the particular allure of the Italian National Opera, which presented traditional interpretations of these works.
Striking performances were given by Andrea Elena, Simona Zambrono, Marcella Benedetti, Barbara Andreini and Antonio Stragapede in the principal roles for “Cavalleria Rusticana.” But the chorus rendition of the Easter hymn in this opera was religiously colorful. As if that weren’t enough, even during the curtain call, the cast showed a remarkable warmth and charm toward a most appreciative audience.
“I Pagliacci” had both freshness and good humor. It would have been easy enough for Luigi Frattola to overdramatize “Ridi Pagliaccio,” one of the most famous numbers in Italian opera. But Frattola, and the entire cast of this production, kept the music clean and brisk. Nevertheless, there was emotional bite and opulence.
The Italian National Opera was a well-projected, gloriously voiced company — the kind that feeds the needs of the operatically converted and turns the rest of us into believers.