New London - A half a block away, cordoned off by a row of roadblocks, fried dough vendors in garish booths filled State Street with a sweet, greasy aroma and rock music echoed up the brick facades. Who would have expected that within the stony confines of the First Congregational Church Friday night one would find a local opera company staging a nearly 200-year-old opera in a performance that was thoroughly professional and utterly delightful?
It's not just a new era for Sailfest, but perhaps for the region's opera lovers, too.

Friday was the second performance here by Connecticut Lyric Opera, and their staging of Rossini's comic masterpiece "The Barber of Seville" - to be repeated today at 3 p.m. - came both as a surprise for its many pleasures and as an enjoinder not to miss this company's performances.
A church, even one with pleasing acoustics such as this, can make a fairly strange venue for opera's primal themes of Lust, Murder and Revenge (though Rossini's gem only flirts with the first of those). But the church compensates for its penitential seating in narrow pews with an intimacy that harkens back to the days when the performers weren't tiny dots on a far-distant stage the size of a basketball court.

These close quarters honor a strong performance and damn a shallow one. The Lyric Opera's "Figaro" was strong in all the places that matter most.
First, the 16-piece orchestra, led by music director Adrian Mackiewicz, was nothing short of superb in carrying forward Rossini's mercurial score the nuance, beautiful phrasing and a nimble jollity that it requires. This ensemble performs regularly as the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, and the orchestral performance was concert quality.

The opera's key vocal parts were well-sung, in some cases, wonderfully sung, and several of the principals have tack-sharp comic timing and stage sense that made the performance the perfect blend of irresistible music and comic theater.

The star of the evening was mezzo soprano Monica Krajewska, as the central love interest Rosina. From her first aria, "Una Voce Poco Fa," she reveled in her flair for coloratura, savoring phrasing and instinctively accenting each key waypoint in the cascade of decorative notes. Singing with a very tight vibrato that didn't blur the coloratura ornamentation, she also has terrific comic timing, the ability to cast a sidelong glance that speaks volumes.
The roles of Figaro, the town's Mr. Fixit who gleefully joins in the intrigues to win Rosina's hand, and Count Almaviva, who goes into disguise as a commoner to try to win Rosina without pulling rank, were well-sung.

As Figaro, Maxim Ivanov sang the famous "Largo al Factotum," with a fearless flair, and as Almaviva, Sean Fallen more than held up his responsibility as the only tenor in the cast. He, too, brought a comic flair, seen best in the hilarious "Pace e Gioia" duet with Dr. Bartolo.

Bartolo, Rosina's ward with his own designs on the girl, shared the spotlight with Krajewska as the evening's star.

The role of the elderly, pompous older man foolishly in love with the young beauty is the stuff opera buffa in made of, and Thom King had a ball in the role. Both his comic presence (especially in ensembles, where he never tried to steal the show) and his rich baritone were as fine as any audience could want. His mile-a-minute patter singing in "A un Dottor Della mia Sorte," one of opera's most physically challenging arias, couldn't have been better.

And the comic role of Don Basilio, match-maker, music teacher and busybody, was perfectly cast, broadly played and richly sung by basso Laurentiu Rotaru.
Drops were used to conceal the church altar, and the costuming was satisfactorily standard. The only weak link was the chorus, which often dropped into a monotone when Rossini's score took flight. The limitations of the chorus resulted in cuts to the Act 1 ensemble finale, one of Rossini's finest moments, which was startling, but far from fatal.

The performance was doubly surprising. It's unusual enough for a local opera company to pop up. It's downright amazing for them to be so good so soon.

Originally published on 7/11/2004. © The Day Publishing Co., 2004.