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Nickel City Opera Goes to Sea

Puccini in a unique setting

The Nickel City Opera is on a roll. Last weekend’s performances of Verdi’s Il Trovatore featured the strongest production by the company in its three-year history. Director Henry Akina’s atmospheric staging at the Riviera Theatre was highly effective, while the singing of the principal soloists proved to be memorable. Hoping to keep that momentum going, Valerian Ruminski, artistic director of the NCO, decided to stage this weekend’s performances of Puccini’s one-act opera Il Tabarro, on Saturday, July 2, and Sunday, July 3, in a genuinely unique location: the stern deck of the USS The Sullivans, the destroyer permanently docked at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, at the foot of Pearl and Main streets, across from HSBC Arena.

While Puccini set Il Tabarro on a barge docked on the river Seine in Paris, Ruminski explained that he first got his idea when he read a newspaper article about a production of the work a few years back that was set on a ship docked in Brooklyn. “When I read about this production,” he says, “my mind started racing, and it only took me about five minutes to come up with the idea of putting on a similar production by the Nickel City Opera, but on the deck of The Sullivans.” That production, by the Vertical Player Repertory, an indie opera company, took place on the deck of a former oil tanker undergoing restoration, docked in the busy container port of Red Hook. The New York Times reported that “parts of the production married beautifully: both the story and the show begin at sunset. The cast had to adjust to the boat’s swaying, but even that proved well meshed. ‘You’re feeling the motion of the ship, and the music begins with this lovely rocking,’ said a member of the show’s chorus.”

Baritone John Packard

Nickel City Opera’s performances also will begin at dusk, about 8:45pm, with some orchestral musical selections preceding Il Tabarro. The audience will be seated on the pier, while English supertitles will be projected onto a screen hanging on the USS Little Rock, docked in back of The Sullivans. Performers will be entering, in some cases through the seated audience, and exiting, via gangways, onto the Little Rock. In the event of rain, a concert version of the opera will be presented under a canopy on the Little Rock.

Ruminski is enthusiastic about his new production: “Anyone with a sense of excitement will want to see Il Tabarro performed on a destroyer. Has anyone in our audience ever seen an opera performed on a ship before? The sightlines from the audience seating area on the dock are very good, and I think that our production, set in the 1940s, during World War II, the time when The Sullivans was commissioned, benefits from being staged on this ship.”

Two of the principal soloists for Il Tabarro played a large part in the success of last weekend’s Il Trovatore. Baritone John Packard, a ruefully forceful Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, will be appearing in Il Tabarro as the deceived husband Michele. Soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs sang the demanding role of Leonora exquisitely in Il Trovatore, portraying a woman who kills herself rather than be unfaithful to her lover, but she gets to put the shoe on the other foot as Michele’s philandering wife Georgetta in Il Tabarro. Both Packard and Blancke-Biggs have sang their roles in Il Tabarro previously, and so did not need to start rehearsing these roles again until this week, while director Henry Akina recently mounted a successful production of Puccini’s Il Trittico, the three-part opera of which Il Tabarro is a part, at his Hawaii Opera Theatre home base.

The role of Georgetta’s unlucky lover Luigi will be sung by tenor Adam Klein, whose career highlights have included Tristan in Tristan und Isolde with the Seattle Opera and many appearances with the Metropolitan Opera, including as the Witch in Hansel and Gretel, as Steva in Jenufa, as the Chevalier in Les Dialogues Des Carmelites, and as Elemer in Arabella, opposite Renée Fleming.

Bass Valerian Ruminski, who appeared as the first soloist in Il Trovatore, set a dramatic standard that the rest of the cast had to work hard to duplicate. In Il Tabarro he’ll sing the role of Talpa, husband to the faithful if eccentric La Frugola, who will be portrayed by NCO newcomer Gillian Cotter, a mezzo-soprano from the Fredonia School of Music, while Hawaiian tenor Jeremy Blossey will sing the part of Tinca. The Easter Festival Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Zachary Kampler.

Tickets are $50. For reservations, call 931-0591. Tickets also may be purchased at the Naval Park Gift Shop on the evenings of the performances, by cash or check.

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