Bel canto in the Catskills

Carmela Altamura (photo by Dion Ogust)

Nothing tests a singer’s skill like bel canto. Perfected in the late 18th- and early 19th-century operas of Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti, the style requires control and beauty of tone, according to Carmela Altamura, founder of the Altamura Center in Round Top, which hosts a summer institute dedicated to master classes of bel canto singing. “Bel canto is very idealistic and elevated. Your emotions are under the control of the mind” – unlike the turbulent passions and tortured spirituality of Wagner, whose operas are bel canto’s polar opposite. While the orchestration is relatively simple, nothing compares to the beauty of bel canto melodies, she added. “You need a good technique to be able to sing that. It’s very demanding.”

Altamura, herself a former opera singer who was born in Italy and sang at La Scala, started the Center at Round Top 12 years ago as a way of upholding the bel canto tradition through master classes for talented singers. The participants are the winners of the Altamura/Caruso International Voice Competition, which is held biennially (last year, it was held in the US, Canada and Italy). At the Altamura Center, the singers develop and advance their technique. The public can participate as well: From July 20 through 30, anyone can sit in on the training sessions for $25 a session. On July 29, prior to a full production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, they can listen to institute artists sing and vote on who should receive the highest cash prize.

The main reason to travel to Round Top on July 29, however, is obviously to catch La Sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), which opens with a count entering an inn. Its intricate plot and exquisite music are infused with “drama, humanity, humor, beautiful singing and redemption,” according to Altamura. The piece, which was directed by Altamura, will be introduced by maestro Anton Coppola, who will speak about the bel canto tradition, and conducted by Canadian Michel Brousseau.

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The star singer is Valerian Ruminski, who plays the count; he was winner of Altamura’s competition in 1998, among numerous other awards, and has since sung for the Met, New York City Opera and dozens of other opera companies. The other singers – also outstanding and representing a wide range of experience on two continents – are Anne Tormela, Steeve Michaud, Sara Louise Petrocelli, Thadd Shirey, Ania Hejnar and Marek Korkusinski.

The indoor theater, which seats fewer than 300, enables audiences to experience opera in a relatively intimate venue and at a reasonable cost. La Sonnambula will be followed on August 25 with a performance of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, adapted by Arthur Miller, and on August 26 by Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, which will be preceded by bel canto singing to the music of Chopin.

La Sonnambula will be performed on Sunday, July 29 at 2 p.m. at Altamura Center in Round Top. Tickets cost $35 general admission, $30 for seniors and $20 for students. Call (518) 622-0070 or (201) 863-8724 to reserve. Visit www.altocanto.org for more information.

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