Puccini in Middlebury

From as early as I can remember, I’ve been an opera buff. I remember sitting in the orchestra section at the Old Metropolitan Opera House on 39th and Broadway and hearing the great mid-century singers. My great-grandmother Selma was having a platonic affair with Caruso. My Aunt Rose hung out with the greats of the time: Gueden, Schwarzkopf, Kunz, and Jerome Hines. My fervid childish imagination lit up at the live passion, violence, and madness on stage that made the comics littering Al Melendy’s barbershop in Morrisville seem pale by comparison.

One afternoon after seeing an Aida with my grandmother, the head of the Opera Guild, the fan club for the well-heeled, ushered us backstage to meet the diva, Galina Vishnevskaya. But she was besieged by voluble, bearded men from the Russian embassy bearing flowers and champagne. On the way back across the stage, a crew was erecting a cottage set for that night’s opening of Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring the debut of an unknown Australian named Joan Sutherland. Our host asked if we might like to come, as she had two extra house seats. My grandmother, allowing that one opera a day was adequate, declined for me. The following week, Sutherland as Lucia made the cover of Life magazine.

We still see occasional performances at the new Met but airfare, a hotel, a few meals, and opera tickets are now about the price of a raised-ranch in Hanksville.

So when friends urged us to see the Middlebury Opera Company, lauding their productions, orchestra, and voices, I was resistant – doubting that Middlebury could mount a world-class opera. But my wise wife bought tickets and we recently saw Puccini’s Il Trittico, a trio of short operas. We’re still discussing the high caliber of the singers, production, and orchestra.

Their production of the comic opera Gianni Schicchi is a riotous send-up for our times. And while I won’t attempt a review, I can say I thought the performance – drawing on both local and national professionals – was about as good as live opera can get.

So, it’s provincial to imagine that only big cities can produce great opera. Vermont’s small towns used to be rife with opera houses and companies. Now, thanks to Middlebury and other regional companies like Opera North, live opera has returned to the green mountains.

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