Not One, But Two Surprises

“Mines of Sulphur” offers suspense; Olga Borodina sang heroically

Newcomers to opera sometimes don’t get the appeal of a dramatic form with so few surprises. Audiences know how “Tosca” ends before the performance even begins. Earlier this month, though, two operas provided some measure of suspense.

A work actually billed as a thriller is “The Mines of Sulphur,” an opera that had its world premiere in 1965, when its composer Richard Rodney Bennett was only 28 years old. The libretto, by Beverley Cross, tells a gothic tale that might be described as “The Lady’s Not for Burning” meets “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” with a liberal dash of Roger Corman. A Gypsy servant, her lover, and his sidekick murder and rob a wealthy aristocrat. Dressing themselves in stolen finery, they welcome a troupe of strolling players who turn out to be Not What They Seem.

Bennett’s score is very much of its period, based in the dissonance of the 12-tone school, with occasional suggestions of romantic tonality in the manner of Alban Berg. The orchestral texture is mostly lean, featuring meandering solo string lines and eerie woodwind chord progressions suitable to the spooky subject matter. Angular vocal lines build toward climaxes on extreme high notes reached by difficult leaps. By way of relief, Bennett includes a folk song setting for two women and baroque opera pastiche for the play within the play.

The NYCO cast this work strongly with American singers including veterans Stephen West and Timothy Nolen. Soprano Caroline Worra (Jenny) coped admirably with the high tessitura of her final scene, and Jessie Raven’s ample mezzo sounded secure and handsome in the role of Rosalind. Tenor Mark Duffin certainly has both the look and the attitude for the angry Bocconion, but the punishing vocal writing eventually reduced him to yelling. The indefatigable NYCO orchestra sounded assured under the baton of George Manahan.

Another cliffhanger at Lincoln Center ended on a happier note. For the week leading up to the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of “La Cenerentola” this season (October 8), the question on everyone’s mind was: will she or won’t she? Olga Borodina, the mezzo-soprano scheduled for her first local take on Rossini’s heroine, was ill, buzzed the rumor mill, and might well cancel the first performance or even the whole run. The gossip gained traction after Borodina’s dress rehearsal when the Met rushed young American mezzo Joyce di Donato into town for a crash course in the production’s intricate staging.

As such, it was no surprise when the curtain lights came up before the show, signaling the entrance of General Manager Joe Volpe to make an announcement. Borodina was suffering from an “infection,” he assured us, but would “do her best.” And, as so often happens in these cases, the “indisposed” singer gave a performance that even the healthiest artist might be proud of.

Borodina’s velvety voice is one of the most intrinsically beautiful in the business right now, and it was a luxury to hear such opulent tone in Cenerentola’s occasional legato passages like “Una volta c’era un re.” The mezzo’s coloratura, well-defined if not exactly glittering, served her well up until the rondo-finale “Nacqui all’affanno.” This aria is meant to cap the opera’s happy ending with a burst of giddy joy, a celebration of the triumph of the downtrodden heroine. Borodina’s cautious approach robbed the piece of vitality. It might also be mentioned that this singer’s womanly and sensuous onstage persona, so apt for Carmen or Dalila, doesn’t quite jibe with the character of mild-mannered Cinderella. You get the impression that this tough lady would just as likely tell her stepsisters to go to hell.

The cast surrounding La Borodina excelled both in ensemble and solo moments. Barry Banks sang Ramiro with a brilliant but unforced tenor, a more lyric sound than we often get in this part. Bass-baritone Simone Alberghini made an auspicious debut as Dandini. Though he smudged the triplets in the character’s difficult entrance aria, he bounced back to win an ovation for his musicality and daffy comedy flair. Among the chief pleasures of the evening was the elegant and precise conducting of Antonello Allemandi, who seems to have mastered the serious art of leading light music.

James Jorden is the producer of the podcast “Unnatural Acts of Opera,” available online at parterre.com.

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