Opera Saratoga takes ‘chamber approach’ to performance

Patrons of Opera Saratoga will notice some changes from past years when the company opens its season
Costume designer Alan Michael Smith takes measurements for the size of a vail for Jamie-Rose Guarrine during costume fitting at the Spa Little Theater.
Costume designer Alan Michael Smith takes measurements for the size of a vail for Jamie-Rose Guarrine during costume fitting at the Spa Little Theater.

Patrons of Opera Saratoga will notice some changes from past years when the company opens its season Sunday with Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

“The season is earlier with more performances and only two operas. And the directing and design team are different,” said Curt Tucker, artistic director. “It is a clear attempt to take a fresh look as to how we use the theater and deliver our performances.”

Besides “Pinafore,” which the company performed in 1964, 1983 and 2001, the other opera is Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which was performed only in 1983.

“We’ve always been a company that plays on intimacy. We take a chamber approach to opera with fewer people on stage,” Tucker said. “This year the chorus will be smaller with 16 instead of 24 and the orchestra will be 17 musicians, down from 26, with fewer strings players.”

The look of the productions will be different. In the past, the orchestra, which was on a second level, was hidden as was part of the stage’s wings. But more of the stage will now be used, even to the back wall of the theater and its sides, and the orchestra, which will still be on a second floor platform, will be very visible.

Opera Saratoga

— Gilbert & Sullivan “H.M.S.Pinafore”: 2 p.m. on Sunday, Tuesday, June 30 and July 1; 7:30 p.m. on June 28 and July 6

— Gaetano Donizetti “Lucia di Lammermoor”: 7:30 p.m. on June 27, 29 and July 5; 2 p.m. on July 2 and 7

WHERE: Spa Little Theatre, Saratoga Spa State Park

HOW MUCH: $85-$50

MORE INFO: 584-6018; www.operasaratoga.org

“It won’t be anything wacky or avant-garde,” Tucker said laughing. “It is a little scary, but exciting.”

New directors

Both directors for the shows are new to the company but are long-time colleagues of Tucker. Lawrence Edelson will do “Pinafore” and Joseph Bascetta will direct “Lucia.”

Edelson has sung and danced in, choreographed and directed several operas over the years, including the New York City Opera revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Patience” in 2005. This is the first time he’s directed a complete G&S production, for which he’s also doing the choreography.

“I’ve always been a great fan of G&S,” Edelson said. “I’m honoring the original material but visually the show will have surprises. It will not be a religious re-staging. The choreography will have a contemporary feel.” Not too contemporary, he added: “I’m not turning it into a space shuttle.”

The show’s social commentary on love between the classes, and how it pokes fun about party politics is very relevant to Americans, he said.

“The issues are the same, but by keeping it as a Brit piece I won’t be making an attack on American audiences,” he said.

The operetta is in English. Tucker will conduct.

Bascetta, who is the founder of the Fresno International Grand Opera where Tucker recently made his debut, has often directed “Lucia” but this is the first time he’s worked in such an intimate space as the Spa Little Theatre.

“It will be a challenge. I’m used to a huge stage,” Bascetta said. “But we’re getting away from grandiose opera. This will be a unique presentation because of the space and its surroundings. It lends itself more to a “Romeo and Juliet” kind of interpretation. An audience of 3,000 makes it become a grand opera, but in this beautiful space we can delve more into the roles and the pain between the lovers.”

The story, which is set in 16th century Scotland, tells of how Lucia falls in love with Edgardo and he leaves to go on a diplomatic mission. Her brother, who is in financial straits and has intercepted Edgardo’s letters, demands she marry a rich landowner. Lucia thinks Edgardo has forgotten her, consents, but on the eve of her wedding, Edgardo returns. Lucia goes mad and kills her bridegroom, and Edgardo kills himself.

Familar role

The role of Lucia is considered a tour-de-force for any soprano. Fortunately, for Jamie-Rose Guarrine, it’s a role she’s sung often.

“It’s the first role I sang as a 22-year-old and the first role I sang in a fully-staged production,” Guarrine said from Fairbanks, Alaska, where she’s based. “I’ve lived with her for 12 years.”

The story and Lucia’s outcome is reflective of the literature of the time, she said.

“It’s macabre and spooky. Lucia is a pure and delicate woman but she’s obedient to her family,” Guarrine said. “She can’t follow her heart. She either goes mad or dies. Those are her only two choices.”

The coloratura vocal demands are not bad as they build throughout the opera. What will be challenging is that 40 seconds of music, which conductors have traditionally cut over the years, that will be inserted. She must choose which cadenza she will sing in the mad scene, which she will share with the flute player, she said.

“There’s a place in the score where there is a fermata [a hold]. A Lucia cadenza was added at the Metropolitan Opera this season. I must do something there, so I will base it on my own research and experience,” she said. “And for the cadenza in the mad scene, I could write my own. Even to the ornamentation or which high notes I sing. This is bel canto. You never know.”

To give sopranos an idea of what they can sing, there is a cadenza book of up to six possibilities. These are not in the score. Guarrine will make the choice and then rehearse separately with the flutist.

“Each cadenza needs to have some emotion behind it, whether it’s joy, horror or hallucinations,” she said. “The flute echoes me. Lucia is the gold standard for mad scenes. It’s over the top with a lot of high notes and it keeps going, it doesn’t die.”

Guarrine said she hopes to convey Lucia’s inherent vulnerability, her emotional instability throughout the role and to make it all seem natural.

Tucker said he chose Guarrine, who debuted at the Met this season, after hearing several sopranos. She had lived with the role, and was a strong actress with a great but light voice that would be ideal for the size of the production and venue, he said.

The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Joseph Mechavich will conduct.

Pre-opera talks will be given one hour before each production.

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