Kathleen Sabol, Aleksandra Vargas (foreground) in Orlando Opera's season finale double bill.

Kathleen Sabol, Aleksandra Vargas (foreground) in Orlando Opera's season finale double bill. (COURTESY OF ORLANDO OPERA / April 4, 2009)

In the wrong hands, "verismo," the late 19th-century Italian operatic tradition that offered "truth" with earthy characters and raw passions, can sometimes seem like little more than a bad soap opera set to music. But the movement toward naturalistic plots included a multitude of possible approaches -- on Friday evening, Orlando Opera showed just how wide-ranging and effective "verismo" can be with an unusual but interesting double bill of two one-act operas at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre.

As the evening's second work, the company offered a rousing and entertaining production of Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana," the 1890 potboiler that launched the genre.

The stage of the Carr became an Italian town square, filled with a swirling mass of citizens. Director Elizabeth Bachman smartly solved the problem of this hall's smallish space with detailed movements by the large number of choristers that were utterly natural and always worthy of close attention.

Against this backdrop, the dysfunctional relationships between Turiddu, sung by Jeffrey Springer, his most recent lover Santuzza, sung by Mary Phillips, and his former fiancée Lola, sung by Sarah Limper, led almost inevitably to Turiddu's death at the hands of Lola's husband Alfio, sung by Donnie Ray Albert.

While these four all gave credible performances, the real stars of this opera were the members of the Orlando Opera Chorus, who were, as always, very well prepared by chorus master Robin Stamper, and who collectively sang several of the more memorable tunes of this opera.

Before Mascagni's signature opera came Suor Angelica, the second of Giacomo Puccini's "Il Trittico" operas. Whether or not one might describe this work as "verismo," it offered an entirely different sort of realism.

Static, with almost no real physical action and barely enough plot to fill a long scene, Suor Angelica is nevertheless a psychologically penetrating and much more sophisticated work than Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.

The story centers around the secret anguish felt by Sister Angelica, a nun who has been seven years in a convent because of the scandal she caused by having an illegitimate child. These facts are revealed when she is visited by a relative, the Princess, who has come to ask Angelica to renounce any claim to her inheritance in order to remove the stain from the family honor. In conversation, the Princess reveals that, unknown to Angelica, the child has died a few years earlier. After giving up her birthright, Angelica is overcome with grief, and the opera ends with her suicide.

Melody Moore in the title role and Suzanna Guzman as the Princess were both fine singers, but again the most important performers were not the leads.

Puccini's masterful use of the orchestra revealed more of the characters' feelings than anything sung on the stage. Conductor Joseph Colaneri shaped the elegant and understated backdrop, which was well played by members of the Orlando Philharmonic, for this dramatic scene.

Perhaps the evening's best news is that there were no visible or aural signs of Orlando Opera's current financial difficulties. The bad news, however, is that those problems -- should they continue -- could mean the end of a worthy company that helps to give Orlando a reputation as more than an over-sized theme park. Improved attendance at the remaining two performances would not hurt the Opera's fundraising efforts.

Scott Warfield is an associate professor of music history at the University of Central Florida.