Opera’s singing very satisfying

“Mese Mariano,” starring Jennifer Rowley (left), is the first of two short operas in a double bill being performed at the Sottile Theatre.

Grace Beahm

Memory played an important role in the Spoleto Festival’s lovely Italian opera double bill featuring Giordano’s “Mese Mariano” and Puccini’s “Le Villi.”

“Mese Mariano” in particular presented a careful recreation of post-war Naples, clearly informed by director Stefano Vizioli’s own childhood experiences.

The pale green color of the convent’s gymnasium, the sparse furnishings, the basketball hoop mounted on one wall, the crucifix above the door, the fine costumes by Roberta Guidi di Bagno, the tray of sweets, the children’s games — all were strikingly authentic (a claim I feel secure making thanks to many visits to Naples over the years).

The close collaboration among Vizioli, Guidi di Bagno, set designer Neil Patel, choreographer Pierluigi Vanelli and lighting designer Matt Frey paid off, for these aesthetic details, so expertly emphasized, were enough to provoke a small shudder of emotion.

Add in the great singing and the fine playing by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, led by Maurizio Barbacini, and what you get is a satisfying evening of well-made opera.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley appears as the protagonist in both works. It’s been said she has “a big voice,” but what I heard was a warm and round voice that had no trouble anywhere in her range. There was an evenness and reliability that surely is the envy of many singers.

Rowley’s voice is at once sturdy and supple. Her high notes soar and shine. Her talent and training, her youth, her vocal flexibility and her stage presence likely will propel her to the world’s most important opera houses and get her a variety of great roles. Spoleto audiences are fortunate to get this chance to hear a star in the making.

But Rowley wasn’t the only one who could sing and act well. The entire cast of “Mese Mariano,” from the nuns — especially Mother Superior (Linda Roark-Strummer) and Suor Pazienza (Ann McMahon Quintero) — to the charming and solid children’s chorus (drawn from local talent) and the ever-amazing members of the Westminster Choir without whom the festival could never succeed, did their jobs impeccably.

In “Le Villi” (“The Willis”), Rowley appeared with the terrific tenor Dinyar Vania who, as Roberto, sang with a robust but focused tone. He, too, enjoys the ability to stretch across his range with a certain consistency. His high notes rang clear.

Baritone Levi Hernandez, who played Guglielmo, father of Rowley’s Anna, gave us a fine facsimile of a man distressed by his daughter’s betrayal. He sang beautifully, with a full, clear, rich sound. This kind of singing is what opera-goers crave, but don’t always get.

The three main characters of “Le Villi” were joined once again by members of the esteemed Westminster Choir who, it turns out, can also act. Either they were lifting a glass in hearty celebration of Anna’s and Roberto’s betrothal, or they were writhing about disturbingly in a madhouse.

The production also benefitted from local dancers, provided by Dancefx Charleston, who helped a lot with the writhing and twitching. These were the fairies of the forest, scorned by their lovers and doomed to an agonizing eternity in search of the men who jilted them, eager to exact a proper revenge.

This is, more or less, what happens to poor Roberto. He leaves the festivities of his engagement to claim an inheritance but gets seduced by an evil siren who causes him to forget Anna, for whom this outcome is a premonition fulfilled. It drives her mad, then to her death.

By the time Roberto recovers his senses and returns, he is destitute and wracked with guilt. But his fate is sealed. The wild willis, Anna now among them, writhe and hiss, luring the lost soul to his doom.

The action is supposed to take place in the woods, among the nymphs. It’s supposed to be a story true to the Slavic myth that is perhaps most famously presented in the ballet “Giselle.” But Vizioli had a different idea. He chose to remove “Le Villi” from the realm of pure myth and provide a quasi-realistic interpretation, one in which Guglielmo is not danced to death by the fairies but chooses to end his own life.

The willis have become mad women imprisoned in an insane asylum of the middle part of the 20th century. They are spirits, to be sure, representing the man’s guilty conscience, but they are real, too.

They tear the floral covering from the walls, revealing the white, sanitized padding meant to protect those interned at this institution from themselves. They are mad; they are also dead. They are not so much mythical beings as symbols of psychological torment.

“I am no longer love,” declares the dead Anna. “I am revenge.” Men, beware.

Is this a good choice? Would “Le Villi” have been better off in the bosco, the myth kept intact, the domain of the inner brain avoided?

Perhaps for some. The creepy, crazy ladies certainly did twitch a lot, their eyes blackened, hair hidden by wigs that made them look as if they’d pulled out their locks bit by bit. Arguably, it was more than enough to get across the meaning. It might have been nice to watch the dancers dance a little more and writhe a little less.

On the other hand, it all was pleasingly freaky. Once it had occurred to me that Vizioli was transporting the action into a psychological realm, I was quick to appreciate the choice.

“Le Villi” ended the night. “Mese Mariano” came first. It was a truer example of the Italian verismo style, portraying common people enduring realistic hardship. It is a sad tale, about a woman who’d been forced to give up her son, and it was presented beautifully.

Carmela (Rowley) comes knocking at the convent to visit her illegitimate child. She tells her story to the sympathetic nuns who prepare for the reunion. But then they learn that the boy died during the night. Horrified by the injustice of it all, they keep the news from Carmela, claiming the child was busy in the church. His distraught mother agrees to come back another day. On her way out, she hears children singing and thinks she’s recognized the voice of her son.

Everything about the presentation Saturday night was spot on, all the details in place. The nuns came across as utterly human and kind-hearted; Rowley found just the right balance between realism and pathos. The opera brought a lump to my throat.