A singer who appeals to heart, ear, and mind

Doing opera in the shadow of Manhattan must be a tremendous challenge, but the New Jersey State Opera has been managing well enough for 21 years. The company tends to offer works and/or singers the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera are apt to ignore. This year, the schedule at Newark's opera house has included a production of Leoncavallo's rarely heard ``Zaza.'' And the company is currently closing its season with Verdi's familiar ``La Traviata.''

What could possibly have dragged me out to Newark on a rainy Sunday evening to hear an opera I have heard probably more than any other single score? The chance to hear - and I hope this does not sound too dramatic - the last great Italian Violetta, Adriana Maliponte. (The final performance is this Saturday night).

When I started regularly attending Met performances on the company's Boston tour stops years ago, I heard her sing the role with a young Jos'e Carreras as Alfredo and the veteran Robert Merrill as Germont. It remains the single greatest performance of the opera I have ever heard, in a theater or on records. Miss Maliponte also set a standard in such roles as Luisa Miller, Juliette, Micaela in ``Carmen,'' Amelia in ``Simon Boccanegra,'' and her debut role of Mimi in ``La Boh`eme.''

In Newark, she proved anew what it is that sets her apart from today's norms. Maliponte sings in a fashion uniquely Italian, with a schooling that is fast being forgotten and is heard in none of the young singers coming out of Italy today. She fits the elusive ideal in an operatic performance: a singer with an individual and unforgettable timbre, who is in complete control of her lustrous instrument, who enunciates a text clearly and with meaning, who shades words for subtextual impact, who sculpts and moulds a musical line to suffuse it with fullest possible communicative power. Her singing and her acting become at once an intellectual as well as visceral experience, appealing to heart, ear, and mind.

Around her were a young, vocally unpolished, histrionically rudimentary tenor named Rodolfo Acosta, and Louis Manikas, a strong (though on this occastion vocally gruff), impeccably coached Italianate baritone. Malipointe's strong portrayal was ably partnered by Alfredo Silipigni's simple, idomatic conducting.

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