Monday, June 17, 2013


Ohio Theater
June 15

Marco Stella shone in Opera Circle's downtown debut.

Opera Circle is the little company that could. Give Dorota Sobieska and Jacek Sobieski a community hall or church sanctuary and a few musicians, and they will put together a credible and entertaining production. Saturday night marked a big step for their organization, a chance to go downtown and show what they can do on a big stage at Playhouse Square.

Their spirited Rigoletto suggests that Opera Circle is ready for prime time.

The evening opened, as always, with a welcome from Dorota that was more than just a perfunctory courtesy. She noted the significance of the occasion, assured the audience that “your presence here is precious,” and perhaps most importantly, set the production in context: “Our mission is to keep opera open and available to everyone.” That means minimal sets, an ad hoc group of performers, and the meager funding spent mostly on colorful costumes and professional singers – a volksoper approach that puts the art form, rather than big stars or egos, front and center.

That approach also favors warhorses like Rigoletto, chosen to attract the widest possible audience rather than break any new ground. But there’s no arguing with the underpinnings of Opera Circle productions. Jacek was music director of the National Theater in Warsaw, Poland for almost two decades, and has conducted operas throughout Europe. Dorota trained at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw and has sung in a variety of recital, orchestral and operatic settings in the U.S. and Europe. So they know how to put on a show.

Rigoletto was helped greatly by two solid male leads – American tenor Isaac Hurtado as the philandering Duke of Mantua, and Italian baritone Marco Stella in the title role. Hurtado has a strong, expressive voice that was evident from his opening “Questa o quella” aria and particularly seductive in the Duke’s ode to love that opens Act II. Hurtado’s acting skills are equally good, which gave his character just the right mix of charm, ardor and guile. The carefree cynicism of his “La donna è mobile” refrain in the final act added a chilling undertone to the tragic denouement.

It was surprising to learn that this production marked Stella’s debut as Rigoletto. He owned the role from his moment he appeared in an over-the-top jester’s costume, reveling in his caustic abuse of noblemen and slowly dissolving into self-pity, vengeance and despair as the evening unfolded. Not much more than awkward padding under his costume marked him as a hunchback, and his portrayal may have been too soft for some tastes. But Stella brought humanity to a role that often lacks it, and his recriminations had a convincing bite.

Dorota Sobieska was less convincing as Rigoletto’s doomed daughter Gilda, partly because she is too old for the part and partly because of uneven singing. The talent is there; when she hits the combination of full voice, emotional expression and technical expertise, the results are wonderful. Her high C# to conclude the “Caro nome” aria in Act II was stunning. But sometimes she could barely be heard.

To be fair, Sobieska was also in charge of stage direction, sets and costumes for this production. With a workload like that, something inevitably suffers, especially in a one-off performance. Singing is a matter of taste, but the irate couple in the fifth row who had their view of the surtitles blocked by a clumsy prop arrangement in the second act probably won’t be back.

Minor glitches have always been part of the Opera Circle package, and probably always will be. What matters is the spirit of the productions – enthusiastic, well-informed and steadfastly professional. The pacing is right, the singers and chorus move properly onstage, and the music and vocals are put together correctly. One might wish for a better-caliber orchestra, or real dancers or an occasional star in the cast. But for straightforward presentations of opera classics by a local troupe, it would be hard to do better.

The question on Saturday was how all this would transfer to a big stage. The short answer is, very well. The lack of a pit muddied the sound a bit, with a 40-piece orchestra on the floor in front of the stage regularly drowning out the singers. Otherwise, the Sobieskis fit neatly into a grand space befitting grand opera. And the nearly full house they drew for Rigoletto should quell any doubts about their ability to attract a downtown audience. Cleveland is lucky to have them, and Playhouse Square would do well to keep them.

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