Monday, May 24, 1999

Cheek, Delligatti brighten May Fest's 'Italian Night'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A brass choir in Music Hall's balcony was echoing the onstage orchestra in the opening to Boito's “Prologue in the Heaven” from Mefistofele.

        Then the May Festival Chorus and Youth Chorus, singing the role of the Invisible Choir, began a chorus of praise to the Lord. As the music made a dramatic crescendo, Mefistofeles (the Devil), sung by bass-baritone John Cheek, stepped up to wager that he would gain the soul of Faust.

        So began the climax to the May Festival's “Italian Night” on Saturday, an increasingly popular concert of opera arias and choruses, which closed the festival season. If the rest of the program had been slow to gain momentum, the thrilling intensity of Boito's “Prologue” made up for it.

        Robert Porco, director of choruses, led the performance which filled every inch of the stage and part of the balcony. The orchestra, which had not played very precisely through the evening, sat up and responded with urgency to Mr. Porco's direction, so that the combined forces climaxed in a stunning, hair-raising cathedral of sound.

        As Mefistofeles, Mr. Cheek, a longtime guest of the May Festival and a Metropolitan Opera veteran, was an imposing presence. In a masterful performance, he brought a sinister dimension to the words of his aria, “Ave Signor,” with all the focus, drama and full-blooded richness that make him a consistently persuasive interpreter. (Mr. Cheek has recorded this work with Robert Shaw on Telarc.)

        The choruses made an equally fine impression, projecting a luminous, majestic quality and articulating the text with dramatic bite. From their perch in the balcony, the Cincinnati Boychoir Tour Choir (Randall Wolfe, director) provided wonderfully celestial moments as the Chorus of Cherubim.

        The program offered other fine moments, too. In her May Festival debut, soprano Paula Delligatti proved to be a dazzling Violetta in her great scene from Act I, climaxing with the famous “Sempre libera” (Ever free). She brought a full range of expression to her singing, and her coloratura runs were exquisitely controlled. The sold-out crowd (3,417) gave the Uniontown, Pa., native a standing ovation.

        In the program's first half, Ms. Delligatti sang “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini's La Rondine and “Mi Chiamano Mimi” from La Boheme with limpid beauty.

        Mr. Cheek also made impressive contributions in the first half, namely “Tu sul labbro de'veggenti” from Nabucco (which featured a cello sextet) and “O patria ... O tu, Palermo” from I Vespri Siciliani.

        The opening included two choral laments from Verdi operas, the famous “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco and “Patria oppressa!” from Macbeth — which were spacious and sweeping but rather devoid of character. The “Bell Chorus” from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci also emerged a bit fuzzy. However, the chorus whipped up more emotion in “Spuntato ecco il ti d'esultanza” from Verdi's Don Carlos, and was focused and secure in the Easter hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana, “Regina Coeli.”

        The season concluded with the traditional “Hallelujah” Chorus sung by the entire cast and audience.


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