The event: the double-billed one-act operas “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” presented by the first ever Fresno Opera and Orchestra Summer Academy at Fresno State.
The background: With the loss of Summer Arts, Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities is hoping to fill some of the void left by the loss of that celebrated institution. The college teamed up with the Youth Orchestras of Fresno to organize the two-week academy, which included talented pre-college and college instrumentalists and college singers. In the first week, academy participants traveled to Los Angeles to perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In the second, they rehearsed intensively for the opera performances.
The scene: The Fresno State Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon, converted into a theater space with a small makeshift stage, is dominated by the massive 75-plus-piece orchestra, conducted by Thomas Loewenheim. About 20 singers fill out the cast and chorus.
The professionals: We’ve heard Scott Piper and Laura Pedersen in Fresno before in conjunction with Youth Orchestras of Fresno fund-raising concerts, but this is the first time for me to experience their exhilarating presences in fully staged works. From the moment Pedersen walks on stage as the hapless Santuzza in “Cavelleria rusticana,” she inhabits the role with a fierce, downtrodden dignity that projects the tragedy to come. Her voice is gorgeous, but more than that, she actually for brief, flaring moments seems to embody the ache of love forlorn. I’m impressed. Piper, too, is superb as the problematic Turiddu, one of those juvenile man-boys who realizes too late there’s a price to pay for his emotional immaturity. Piper is fiery in “Pagliacci,” another wonderfully wrought (and sung) characterization but it’s Pedersen’s Santuzza in “Cavalleria” that becomes the indelible performance of the day.
The student standouts: Student singers fare very well. Isabel Contreras excels as Turiddu’s mother in “Cavalleria,” and Andrew Hernandez’s Alfio is impressive. Both are Fresno State students. So is Constantine Pappas, as the lover Silvio in “Pagliacci,” who gives us romantic chemistry and leading-man assertiveness. Anthony Radford, a Fresno State opera professor, knows how to stage a love scene, that’s for sure.
The orchestra: It’s fun to hear such a big, lush sound, especially with the “Cavalleria.” Loewenheim’s passion for the very passionate music is evident. I had expected the orchestra to sound even better, however. The strings, in particular, had some weak moments in the famed “Cavalleria” Intermezzo, with the cellos the weakest. The woodwinds, brass and percussion were stronger.
The verdict: The program seems a robust way to bring quality opera to the Valley. (And with professionals such as Piper, Pedersen and John Minagro, as a robust Tonio in “Pagliacci,” gracing us with their presence, it’s a real treat for audiences.) I’m excited about what this academy could become if it continues in the future. Unfortunately, the attendance at the Sunday matinee was much thinner than I would have expected. I think the academy organizers misjudged the price point. Frankly, $35 for a general admission ticket was too high for a student presentation. Yes, the professional singers were a bonus. But the production values and overall aesthetic didn’t justify the top ticket price. Overall, I can see the groundwork being laid here for a first-rate, prestigious academy in the future.