Gala finales are the Oscar nights of an opera festival: virtuoso showcases for their performers, framed by a lyrical profession of their art’s most memorable scenes. Sally Li’s resoundingly successful Bel Canto in Barga was that and much more on Saturday, the last act of its 2014 season at the Teatro dei Differenti.
The artists earned thunderous ovations from a delighted audience. Their voices were everything an opera-lover — or a composer — could ask, rich with emotion and full of professional confidence. Their piano accompanist, Dario Tondelli, was a virtuoso in his own right.
Soprano Chiara Giudice sang three of Italian opera’s most famous set pieces: Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” (Tosca) and “O mio babbino caro” (Gianni Schicchi), and joining Portuguese tenor Alberto Sousa in Verdi’s duet “Parigi o cara” (La Traviata). Almost everyone in a classical music audience is intensely familiar with these arias, and accustomed to hearing them sung by the likes of Maria Callas and Montserrat Caballe in recorded versions. Attenzione, signore. A brilliant newcomer is about to join your storied company.
As for Sousa, he was the festival’s most consistent crowd-pleaser, whether portraying La Boheme’s jealous lover Rodolfo or bringing down the house with sentimental favorites from the repertoire of Neapolitan canzone, the venerable torch songs that Italians hold dear. Sousa has it all, phenomenal range abetted by adroit vocal control and unreserved enthusiasm. Could anyone imagine a more deeply affecting Tony than his, dreaming of “Tonight” in Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story?”
Ryan Hugh Ross was formidable in addressing the baritone’s ambiguous dilemma, a voice that embodies male power but is often assigned to second rather than lead roles. A tenor can get away with just belting out a wonderful song. A good baritone has to do far more, as a master of stagecraft as well as a singer, and Ross is a very fine baritone indeed. He left no doubt about that in his Papageno from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and as the love-struck Porgy in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
Soprano Bianca Barsanti should be remembered by festival-goers for her courage as well as professional skill. For a week she struggled with a severe virus, and each of her performances exacted an enormous price in effort and discomfort. The audience scarcely knew, which was a remarkable feat in itself, in part because Ms. Barsanti was so winning in verve and personality. No one will ever forget her sexy and happily sloshed Musetta. The virus eased for the Gala, and we were treated at last to the complete Bianca Barsanti, in an extremely demanding aria from Leo Delibes “Lakme” and a stirring reprise of the beautiful “Quando m’en vo” from “La Boheme.”
And then there was our Sally, resplendent in a red-silk gown that evoked her origins in Shandung, China (as did the presence of her mother Aili in the audience). She gave her hometown Barga crowd what it desperately wanted, allowing herself to doff her hat as Bel Canto president and take to the stage in heart-melting interpretations of arias from Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” and Puccini’s “Turandot,” the great Lucchese maestro’s blending of Italian music and Chinese drama. She ended with a mesmerizingly sensual “Summertime” (Porgy and Bess).”
What Sally accomplished in this first season of Bel Canto cannot be overstated. More than a few people thought that a nine-day, six-performance festival was impossibly ambitious for any new event, much less one that was founded, organized and managed by somebody with no administrative experience. She enjoyed invaluable support from her vice-president, Helen Fentimen, costumer Fiona MacLennan, secretary Alessia Biagiotti and husband Riccardo Negri. But they’d be the first to say it was Sally’s show, from the moment of inspiration to that gorgeous note of “Summertime.”
I was one of the doubters at first. We were all decisively wrong, and Sally Li was wonderfully, memorably right. Bring on season two!
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).