New Barn Opera shows real promise

Tenor Joshua Collier, founder and artistic director of Barn Opera, at Brandon Music. (Provided photo)

BRANDON – Opera lovers form a unique breed, more like rock fans than traditional classical music lovers. (The two groups are not the same, though they overlap.) In short, despite their ages – from 20s to 80s and more – they’re rabid. So when a new Vermont opera company announced a “reading” of “Madama Butterfly,” all 50 seats at Brandon Music sold out in a couple of days at $50 apiece. And if the enthusiastic, very vocal response to Saturday’s debut performance was any indication, they weren’t disappointed. Barn Opera is the creation of Joshua Collier, a new Brandon resident and a fine tenor who has appeared several times with the Opera Company of Middlebury and Brandon’s Compass Music and Arts Foundation. Collier brought together a cast of some 10 professional singers, all Vermont residents and not a weak voice in the bunch, to sing Puccini’s tragic tale of an innocent 15-year-old Japanese geisha conned into a sham marriage by an American naval officer. Saturday’s performance had its limitations and weaknesses, yet ultimately it proved rewarding. With piano accompaniment, the singers used scores and music stands, yet acted out their roles to a degree. As the language was Italian, an in-depth synopsis was read before each of the three acts, and the intimate Brandon Music concert room was decorated with tables for a sort of Japanese cabaret. The strength of the production approach, besides the singers, was the emotional power of the familiar arias, while the weakness was the connecting dialogue, unsupported by action or Supertitles. Still, the audience didn’t seem to mind, and the dramatic arc was delivered. Among the major roles, two singers were ideal. Collier, Barn Opera’s founder and director, gave the American officer B.F. Pinkerton the full range of emotions by varying expression and color, from quietly tender to overtly dramatic; it was beautiful singing. And mezzo-soprano Julie Olssen, a Jamaica resident, proved a consummate pro as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, combining warmth, power and tenderness with real vocal security. Soprano Helen Lyons, who recently returned to her home of Ferrisburgh, is a powerful and convincing singer, but her luscious voice might have been more appropriate for the diva Tosca than the innocent Butterfly. Still, she was responsible for some lovely singing, and the audience was thrilled with her power. Baritone Cailin Marcel Manson, who lives in Putney and directs the Bennington Choral Society, sang Sharpless effectively with power, but somewhat monochromatically, seldom allowing the American consul’s tenderness for Butterfly to encroach. Both of Montpelier, tenor Cameron Steinmetz as the opportunistic Goro, and soprano Allison Devery Steinmetz as Kate Pinkerton, sang effectively with real vocal beauty. Baritones Nicholas Tocci and Christopher Carbin proved effective and good singers in a variety of roles. Leading the entire effort as conductor from the piano was Kenneth Olssen of Jamaica, co-founder with his wife of Southern Vermont Lyric Theatre. Although much of the performance was a bit brash for this intimate opera, and his sometimes overly enthusiastic piano certainly contributed, it delivered the power of much of the beauty of “Madama Butterfly.” Barn Opera is certainly off to an auspicious start and is planning “Opera’s Greatest Hits” evenings for May 11 and 13 (Mother’s Day). On slate for fall is Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” for Sept. 15 and Puccini’s “La bohème” Dec. 15. Apparently some folks can’t get enough opera, so Barn Opera is most welcome among Vermont’s limited opera offerings.   Barn Opera Barn Opera will present “Opera’s Greatest Hits,” arias, duets and more, at 7 p.m. Friday, May 11, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 13 (Mother’s Day), at Brandon Music, 62 Country Club Road in Brandon. Tickets are $53; call 802-247-4295, or go online to www.barnopera.com.

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