Opportunities for young singers to practice their profession are nearly as scarce as those for conductors, especially now that so many of New York’s smaller opera companies have folded. One that still seems financially healthy and artistically thriving is the Dicapo Opera Theatre, under the direction of Michael Capasso and Diane Martindale, operating out of a comfortably appointed 204-seat theater at 184 East 76th Street. I’ve seen several enjoyable productions over the past couple of years, including a repertory perennial (La Bohème), a welcome revival (Tchaikovsky’s Yolanta), and a contemporary American classic (Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah).
Dicapo’s latest offering was A Chekhov Trilogy, three operas by Richard Wargo based on short stories by the Russian author. An evening of one-acters is always tricky business – even Puccini couldn’t please everyone with his Il trittico – although Wargo’s trilogy tries hard to be audience-friendly by serving up a bit of everything: bedroom comedy (The Seduction of a Lady), poignant, tear-in-the-eye romance (A Visit to the Country), and madcap farce (The Music Shop). Wargo belongs to the conservative but honorable school of American opera composition along with Jack Beeson, Carlisle Floyd, and Dominick Argento, all expert at writing lyrical and theatrically effective music for the stage based on traditional models. There is an abundance of tuneful arias and skillfully worked-out ensembles in Wargo’s three scores, all designed to flatter the voice and underscore dramatic points against an apt and inventive orchestral underpinning. Things don’t always pan out – the first opera takes 45 minutes to accomplish what could have been done in 20, and the bittersweet lyricism of the second tends to be rather anonymous. The energy level rises in the final episode, a delicious bit of insanity as a meek husband desperately ransacks a Russian music shop to find an appropriate song for his Wagnerian dragon of a wife, who unexpectedly materializes in a sequence of hilarious hallucinations. Although A Chekhov Trilogy occasionally tests an audience’s patience, it also gives a dozen talented young singers rewarding material to work with, and Dicapo’s mostly splendid cast responded eagerly to Capasso’s lively staging. Under Steven Crawford’s confident musical direction, a quartet of mellifluous voices tended to the delicate central work (Carla Wood, Cristina Castaldi, Eric S. Thomas, and Barton Green), while four expert buffos – Gregory Harrell, Wren Harrington, Marc Molomot, and Catherine Kelly – romped merrily through this antic music shop.