THE LAST GASPS

It hardly seems possible, but the Music Academy of the West summer festival is down to its last 10 days. Eight weeks of chamber music, masterclasses, song recitals, orchestra concerts and more from the 135 highly advanced and mostly pre-professional young artists is coming to a close, but not before the season culminates with some of the summer’s most intriguing programming

First and foremost, there’s the opera. Always one of the highlights of the season, this year’s offering harkens back to a decade ago at the Montecito music campus, with a re-staging of Rossini’s “Il Viaggio a Reims,” which the academy produced back in 1997. As voice program director Marilyn Horne notes, the Rossini has been the most requested opera over the ensuing years, but there is every reason to expect that this production will exceed its predecessor.

For one thing, it seems to be a particularly interesting time in international relations to revisit Rossini’s 1825 meditation on an impromptu meeting of many of Europe’s important politicians and members of the social elite. In it, the assorted dignitaries are headed to France for the coronation of King Charles X, but are unable to complete the final stretch of the journey because of a shortage of horses and carriages. Stranded at a spa, they intermingle, with romantic and fractious relationships ensuing. In “Il Viaggio,” things end well, as battles both real and threatened are resolved peacefully, with the harmonious music echoing the action on stage.

“I love this opera because it’s not a great tragedy. No one gets killed,” says conductor Christopher Larkin, who served in a similar role for a recent production of the opera at Portland Opera in Oregon. “For me, it’s all about humanity and tolerance for different cultures. My favorite scene is at the end of the first act, when a Russian and Spaniard are fighting over the Polish widow, but just as they are about to start, the harp begins a soprano solo singing about fraternal love. They lay down their weapons and everybody embraces. It’s really very moving.”

As Larkin noted, “Il Viaggio” is short on dramatic scenic development. But what it lacks in action is made up for in the singing. The Bel Canto style opera calls for nearly a dozen leading roles, which makes it difficult for a professional company to stage, but perfect for the budding singers at the academy, who each get a chance to shine on solos. (Montecito native Evan Hughes, who just claimed the Marilyn Horne Vocal Foundation Award late last month, sings the bass role of Lord Sydney in the production.)

“They’re at a stage now where they’re expected to be at the same level as professionals,” Larson says. “It’s a very high level. It’s a beautiful production.”

Christopher Mattaliano, who directed the Music Academy’s 1997 version and also directed the Portland production, was originally slated to re-team with Larkin for the current show, but his commitments as the Portland company’s new artistic director kept him away from Montecito. Instead, Casey Stangl, who served as Mattaliano’s assistant for the recent Portland production, took over as stage director.

“We’ve worked together before, since Casey was doing a lot of the work while Christopher recovered from an illness,” Larkin says. “The production is going to be fantastic.”

(The mains performances of “Il Viaggio a Reims” are performed at 7:30 pm on August 4, and 2:30 pm on August 6, at the Lobero Theatre. Tickets are $20.)

No Gilles, Now Julian

Despite the fact that an opera orchestra calls for a much smaller band than a full-scale symphony, the smart folks who run the Music Academy figured out a way to keep all the instrumentalists active for the whole eight weeks. Those who aren’t assigned to the opera orchestra now wind up in the Academy’s new chamber orchestra.

For the first two years, that meant a week’s worth of practice and a public performance with Gilles Apap, the famed French Algerian violinist who was Santa Barbara Symphony’s concertmaster for several years before a solo career beckoned. But he’s off to Europe for other commitments this season, so Julian Wachner takes over for this year’s concert, which takes place on August 6 (at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church), directly between the two opera performances. Wachner, the youthful founding music director of the Red House Opera Group and the Bach-Académie de Montreal, will conduct a program of two Vivaldi conceti, a Stravinsky concerto and Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.”

‘Cabaret’ by the Sea

The Music Academy’s final weekend begins with the big fundraising concert, dubbed “Cabaret! A Sea of Shining Stars.” Veteran Broadway director Don Pippin – who spent 14 years as music director of Radio City Music Hall and won a Tony Award for “Oliver!” – serves a similar role for the 25 vocal artists who make up the cast of the gala extravaganza.

It’s a chance for local audiences to see the budding opera and art song superstars let down their hair and belt out the best of Broadway, as this year’s event is geared toward the music of composer Irving Berlin.

In an effort to expand the capacity for the show, “Cabaret” moves off campus for the first time in its 14-year history, alighting instead at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.

“It’s not that far down the road, but it seems a more neutral location for people. We want everyone to realize this isn’t just a Montecito event,” says Diane Sullivan, a Montecito resident who is chair of benefits and special events for the academy. “We’re hoping to use this as more of a mainstream entry point for anyone who might not have yet become involved with the Music Academy.”

In addition to the two-hour concert, the event includes a cocktail hour served on the upstairs balcony, a four-course dinner catered by Rodney’s Steakhouse and the hotel, plus a short auction.

(Tickets for “Cabaret,” which starts at 5:30 pm on August 10, are $300. Call 565-5921.)

Curtain Call

Finally, the season comes to a close with an all-Russian program by the Academy Festival Orchestra on August 12, at the Lobero, preceded the previous night by Chamberfest, now in its third year. This event teams academy young artists with the faculty members for a concert that serves as a cross between a student picnic concert, and the faculty Tuesday at 8 series. (Tickets are $35). See you next June.