Admirers of the seldom-heard 1913 Italo Montemezzi opera L'amore dei tre re (The Love of the Three Kings) are used to having to hunt for it, if only because it was so popular in the first half of the 20th century and fell off the map during the second half. But at the intermission during the Academy of Vocal Arts presentation of the opera Tuesday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, I was on a different search - for what I wasn't hearing.
All the right things were on stage - a good, 60-strong orchestra under Christofer Macatsoris, a cast who, even if their voices weren't always up to the considerable task at hand, understood the piece so minutely as to know exactly how each scene functioned. But the opera's fusion of sweep, detail, and dramatic inevitability wasn't fully there.
To make room for the sizable orchestra, the usual Perelman sound shell wasn't there. While the music clearly wasn't being focused out into the auditorium, an intermission inspection revealed that much was probably lost in the upper flies. The situation was still superior to AVA's own acoustically dry theater. But expectations had to be adjusted. And those who knew the opera well enough to fill in what was being lost probably left grateful that the performance was as fully realized as it was.
The plot is the sort of tale only opera could get away with. A medieval Italian princess is loved by many. After her death, her father tinges her lips with poison, and she ends up killing lovers looking for a tactile farewell - including her husband (the king's son) and a boyfriend. The music draws from Verdi's dramatic vigor, Puccini's psychologically pregnant harmonies, Debussy's sense of mystery, and Richard Strauss' orchestral sophistication. By Act III, the composer's invention seems limitless, with a singular quality that few such action-packed operas have - controlled delirium.
Marina Costa-Jackson was the production's star, with a voice so full-bodied you wondered whether she was a mezzo-soprano - until those high notes rang out, maybe not effortlessly but always compellingly. She seemed keenly aware of the phrasing appropriate to a piece of this era and used her vocal heft with good dramatic effect.
Andre Courville's physical compactness contrasted oddly with the imposing bass voice he brought to the key role of the old, blind king Archibaldo - important because he's the opera's moral center. Baritone Jared Bybee has a well-honed voice, and a natural way of projecting the opera's highly colored rhetoric with truth in every phrase. Tenor Marco Cammarota, whose voice seems not to have fully emerged, still had the intelligence to imply what his pipes couldn't achieve. So even if the opera didn't deliver all possible thrills, plenty was there.
Academy of Vocal Arts: L'amore dei tre re
7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Centennial Hall, Haverford School, 450 Lancaster Ave., Haverford.
Tickets: $50, $85.
Information: 215-735-1685 or www.avaopera.org