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Review: Musicians of Ma’alwyck brew up offbeat fun with ‘Kona Coffee Cantata’

Friday, June 7, 2013
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— Before the Musicians of Ma’alwyck gave what was probably the East Coast premiere of Jerre Tanner’s “The Kona Coffee Cantata” Friday night at the First Reformed Church, the audience had a coffee tasting courtesy of Liquid Assets of Averill Park, who had put up a special roast for the occasion.

The aroma of the brew wafted through the air to set up the upbeat mood for Tanner’s offbeat, comic, one-act opera. It was a performance every bit as strong as the coffee.

Set on Kona, the story has Mr. Kua, sung by baritone Jonathan Estabrooks with great conviction in a ringing, resonant big voice, alarmed by the theft of his coffee beans. Tenor Tim Reno says he’ll help look for the thief, but he wants to marry Kua’s daughter, Kolea, sung by soprano Sabrina Elyse Manna.

It turns out she’s taken the beans to sell in Honolulu at a huge profit. All is forgiven and the lovers marry with Kua’s blessing. Librettist was Harvey Hess.

The music, which was to parody Bach’s famous Coffee Cantata, follows some of his structure, but the famous counterpoint surfaces only here and there, as does his vocal melismatic recitatives and one section with a walking bass. These are interspersed with some wonderfully lyrical arias that soar, some popish kind of accompaniments that are light and airy and even the use of the ipu, a kind of Hawaiian gourd, for rhythm.

Toward the end, the connection between the baroque and the island-light was less seamless and more obvious.

Few props were needed, although a Hawaiian kind of bower was put near the altar. The two men wore casual clothes, as did conductor Dan Foster, who wore a Hawaiian shirt. Manna dressed in a black suit and heels. Curiously, the singers used scores, which seemed to impede naturalness of action. Only Estabrooks convinced, which showed his experience. Ralph Blasting directed.

The seven-member ensemble was agile navigating the various demands. Flutist Norman Thibodeau had several obligatos, which he played eloquently.

Overall, the opera was indeed lighthearted and often sunny, and the beauty of some of the lines was exquisite. But there was an undertone of morality, which gave the work a gravity and kept it from becoming flighty or silly.

Tanner’s opera is an interesting effort and one the crowd appreciated with a standing ovation.

The final concert of the MOM season features violin and guitar music Sunday at Druthers Brew Pub in Saratoga Springs.

 
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