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Myra Chanin

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The Weird but Wonderful Way That Culture Survives and Thrives in Unusual Places

Posted: 07/03/2012 1:30 pm

When most people, including myself, think opera, they envision a portly lady singing/dying in a massive theatrical venue with most seats too far away from the stage to see and hear unassisted by binoculars and "secret" sound amplification. For a splendid, intimate alternative to this, meet the DiCapo Opera Company.

The DiCapo Opera Company is very special. It's a gutsy cultural oasis set in a little gem of a theater tucked away in the basement of a church -- St. Jean Baptiste Church basement on East 76th Street, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. During its 1995 renovations, DiCapo's General Director, Michael Capasso, transformed raw basement space into a jewel box petit opera house with 204 burgundy velvet seats, luxurious carpeting, ebonized oak walls, brass railings, ample wing space, a stage with sprung wood floor, and 38-foot adjustable proscenium, private dressing rooms, box office, bar, commodious lobby areas, quiet air conditioning, computerized lighting, and a state-of-the-art supertitle system. It's as superbly elegant as many mightier organizations but it offers a degree of intimacy not possible in larger theaters. You feel that you're watching a private performance in the Salon of the Grand Duke of Saxony.

Best of all, you can hear and see the singers no matter where you sit, despite the fact that DiCapo never uses any sound amplification, because you're no more than 12 rows from the stage with great sightlines. What they sing is what you hear, and hear it you do! The high artistic level of DiCapo's productions is wonderfully shocking and has given rise to a serious and loyal following of connoisseurs and opera aficionados and others like me. Best of all, they not only perform classic as well as rarely heard operas, they also debut new works. Also DiCapo often slips in something less highbrow into their season; i.e., superb productions of melodic operettas like The Merry Widow and/or the crème de la crème of the best of the Broadway musical repertoire, which happily segues into their current production of The Most Happy Fella.

The Most Happy Fella is very special. It was a Broadway hit despite that fact that it's actually a quasi-opera with exquisite arias, stunning orchestral themes and a few numbers like "Oh, my Feet," or "Mama, Mama," with subtle melodies that sound like recitatives. The book, lyrics and music, which took four years to complete, are the another musical masterpiece by Frank Loesser, who also brought us How to Succeed and Guys and Dolls. The book is based on a great play, Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted. It's a "mail-order" love story between an older Italian immigrant farmer, and a younger woman, a worn-out waitress, which tugs at your heart and tear ducts. Best of all, The Most Happy Fella has a most Most Happy Ending. My companion was a Philadelphia lawyer, hardly a weepy Willy, but even he teared up at the sweetness of the story. And best of all, no singing fat lady dies.

FYI, The Most Happy Fella originally opened on Broadway in 1956, ran for 14 months, was nominated and won a slew of awards then and every time it was revived on Broadway. Also Loesser may have lived a version of this July-December romance. He married the leading lady, Jo Sullivan, the original Rosabella, when he was 49 and she had to be considerably younger inasmuch as she was still performing ingénue roles. Jo Sullivan Loesser's most admirable feat? She has managed to hide her date of birth from Google, which to some of us is the greatest accomplishment of all.

DiCapo's The Most Happy Fella is a second extension of a revival -- first performed and extended March 2012 then brought back with the same singers for the folks that were unable to get tickets when DiCapo first staged it. t's being performed now again by DiCapo's original cast through July 8, which gives you a few more days to see it if you happen to be in New York City. Go. You won't be sorry.

Baritone Michael Corvino as Tony, and soprano Molly Mustonen as Rosabella are strong singers and actors. They make the music soar and the lyrics meaningful and real. Great comic relief is added by Lauren Hoffmeier's Cleo, Rosabella's friend and follow former waitress and Brance Cornelius's Herman as Cleo's passive suitor who likes everybody and can't make a fist. The full orchestra makes the music robust. I can't give this production enough praise!

As for the question of whether The Most Happy Fella is an opera, actually I don't think it matters. Opera-Shmopera, DiCapo's Most Happy Fella is a total joy to experience.

 
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