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Bid Arrivederci to Summer; Have a Bel Canto Evening


Any music dictionary will tell you that "bel canto" literally means "beautiful singing," which is what a lot of us feel all opera singing should be.

But the term also refers to a specific period of Italian opera, when composers such as Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti (and their predecessors) were writing brilliant works that relied almost exclusively on showcasing vocal purity, beauty and agility.

Opera Pacific will be honoring this kind of singing on its annual Festa Italiana program Saturday at Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach.

"I always wanted to do a bel canto evening," company artistic director John DeMain said in a recent phone interview from Madison, Wis., where he is also artistic director of the Madison Opera.

"I always love to go back to basics, [to] what for us, opera is all about. Why do most of us go to opera? The core of the audience loves the human voice. We're all in love with singing."

DeMain has divided Festa, Orange County's last classical music outdoor program of the summer, into two parts.

The first part will concentrate on comedies and include Figaro's famous entrance aria, "Largo al factotum," from "Il barbiere di Siviglia" and Nemorino's sweet "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'amore."

The second half will focus on tragedies and include the rousing tenor-baritone duet, "Suoni la tromba," from Bellini's "I Puritani" and the famous sextet from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor."

Other arias, duets, ensembles and choruses will be included.

"We can't begin to crack the surface with any depth," DeMain said. "But we can give some examples."

Of the five solo artists, three are new to Opera Pacific and two are returnees.

The new singers are:

* Soprano Laura Claycomb, who won praise as Juliet in Bellini's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi" by Los Angeles Opera in October.

* Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has sung at Houston Grand Opera and Santa Fe Opera, among other companies.

* Tenor Gregory Turay, who won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award this year.

The returning soloists are baritone Earle Patriarco, who sang Rossini's Figaro in 1996, and bass David Michael, who was Sparafucile in Verdi's "Rigoletto" in 1997.

"These are very talented young singers," DeMain said. "The audience will have a wonderful time, which is what these concerts do, allow [us] to focus on the singer."

Revived last year in honor of the company's roots in Laguna Beach, Festa Italiana is a gala fund-raising concert in itself. But DeMain sees it this year also as a first link in a chain tracing the evolution of Italian opera.

After bel canto, opera changed, particularly through the dramatic writing of Verdi.

"One of the things that was on my mind this year, in tying the years together, is that we're about to celebrate Verdi," DeMain said. "I thought it would be interesting to do bel canto as a wonderful point of departure, considering the Verdi opera we've chosen to do ['Macbeth'], his over-the-top effort to part from [bel canto].

"Subscribers can prepare themselves to understand with even greater depth what Verdi was about, where he started and where he took Italian opera to.

"So often when you delve between the comic and serious side of bel canto, the music, in itself, did not distinguished between what is comic and what is serious. That is not the case once you start moving forward in opera. 'Macbeth' makes a big effort to change that. It puts the drama equally important to the music, and in some cases, it takes precedence. Verdi didn't want Lady Macbeth to have the classically beautiful voice."

In fact, if things work out well, DeMain has other plans.

"Next fall, I would like to do an all-Verdi concert, featuring, if we can pull it off, three acts, each one from a different Verdi opera," he said.

"But we're not done with planning in that area. Perhaps verismo [a style of opera] the year after. That's farther than I would plan. That's the long-range planning.

"I also wouldn't mind moving toward concert opera, and maybe doing an opera we might not play on the stage but which people would enjoy hearing.

"But we can't at this point do an obscure piece that nobody knows. We haven't developed that kind of audience yet. We're supposed to make some money out of this fund-raising event. But even if we don't, it's important that we don't lose money. Even doing an all-bel-canto evening is a little risky."

* Opera Pacific will present Festa Italiana on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Irvine Bowl (Festival of the Arts), 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. John DeMain will conduct. $25 to $75. (800) 346-7372.


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at

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