ROMEO CASCARINO AND "WILLIAM PENN"
The composition of "William Penn" spanned 25 years, as Philadelphia composer Romeo Cascarino took the time to fulfill his vision without any reassurance that the work would ever be performed. As a young boy growing up in South Philadelphia, Cascarino was moved by a plaque which hangs on the north quadrant of Philadelphia's City Hall. It prominently displays William Penn's "Prayer for Philadelphia," found among his writings. It began a life-long fascination with Penn, who founded and designed the city, named the state for his father, Admiral William Penn, and forged the treaty with the Indians during two short American visits 19 years apart.
In 1950, Cascarino set the Prayer as a choral work for the Singing City Chorale. He soon discovered the text of the Indian treaty, and set that to music as well. Eventually, the concept of an opera emerged, and he asked poet Peggy Gwynn to create a working libretto using many of Penn's texts from writings and letters. During the composition of other pieces and the teaching of composition and orchestration at Philadelphia's Combs College of Music, he continually worked on the opera.
The world premiere of "William Penn" took place at Philadelphia's Academy of Music on October 24 and 29, 1982. It formed the final evening of the summer-long Century IV Celebration, which honored the 300th anniversary of the city's founding as depicted in the opera's final act.
Through a stroke of good fortune, the Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone John Cheek was available, and willing to learn this demanding title role. It was agreed that Christofer Macatsoris, music director of Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, would conduct, and the late Dino Yannopoulos, then the Academy's artistic director, would stage the work. In addition, the smaller roles in the opera would be sung by AVA's resident artists.
No singer could have known every nuance of the music than Dolores Ferraro, wife of the composer, who was cast in the role of Penn's wife Gulielma. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia (called the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia at that time) was enlarged from 16 to 60 players. The Philadelphia Singers, a professional ensemble which also performed as the Opera Company of Philadelphia chorus, were engaged under the direction of its founder, the late Michael Korn. Members of the Thomas Jefferson University Chorus were also enlisted for two scenes, thanks to its director Dr. Robert Thayer Sataloff, who had received a Doctorate of music while studying with Cascarino at Combs.
Yannopoulos suggested the Swiss designer Toni Businger to create the elaborate sets, built by Adirondack Scenic, and the costumes, built by Malabar in Toronto, Canada. The Academy of Music's unusual shape, with a slightly raked stage, made it difficult to accommodate the five extremely large sets, and necessitated a huge stage crew.
REVIEW OF "WILLIAM PENN" IN FANFARE MAGAZINE:
Is there a more loaded word in music than traditionalist? Some people hurl it with scorn, implying an allegation that the composer refuses to “advance” music in new directions. Mendelssohn could have been, and probably was, so accused.
In truth, it is not the burden of every composer to move music forward, to invent new compositional techniques or new musical grammar. But if a composer chooses to write in a traditional vein, there must be something about his music that stays with the listener after the work is concluded, or, at the very least, something that gives truly genuine and unique pleasure during the encounter. Romeo Cascarino passes that test, with considerable room to spare.
Cascarino (1922–2002) grew up in Philadelphia, and thus had William Penn in his DNA. Penn’s Prayer for Philadelphia is displayed on a plaque that hangs on City Hall, and it served to spark a life-long fascination with Penn for the composer. He set the prayer as a choral work in 1950, and later set the words of the treaty Penn negotiated with the Indians. The idea of an opera based on Penn’s life and using much of his writing consumed Cascarino over a period of more than 20 years, and it was finally completed in the 1970s, and given two concert performances at Drexel University in 1975 and 1977. Then in 1982, Tom DiNardo, who reviewed those performances as critic of the Philadelphia Bulletin (he is now with the Philadelphia Daily News), organized a staged performance of the opera. That performance was recorded live, and is released here on a label created by DiNardo just for this release.
Cascarino’s final years were spent in ill health, but he was made aware of this recording and heard it before he died—and in fact even oversaw the choosing of scenes between the two performances. He must have been very gratified to hear the level of commitment and professionalism shown by every single performer involved.
William Penn may break no new ground, and indeed one may hear echoes of Puccini, Copland, Menotti, Strauss, and occasionally Debussy. But it is no pastiche, no mish-mash of styles. Rather, it is a cohesive music drama, with memorable tunes and a sense of shape and inevitability that only stage-worthy operas contain. Among his many gifts, Cascarino counted genuine melodic inspiration and a rich sense of orchestral color. His music underlines the psychology of the drama throughout, and the result is a deeply engaging work. My mind didn’t wander at all throughout three listenings.
Part of the success is due to the performance. John Cheek doesn’t just perform the title role—he owns it, musically and dramatically dominating the action. It might seem an act of nepotism to have cast the composer’s wife, Dolores Ferraro, as Penn’s wife—but in fact Ferraro has a lovely lyric/spinto soprano voice and not surprisingly sings the role with gripping conviction. Those two roles dominate the opera, but there are many important secondary roles, all of which are very well performed.
Christofer Macatsoris conducts the (enlarged) Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia with urgency, and the players respond with commitment and with technical finesse. The choral work is first-rate, and the recorded sound is fine. It is a live performance, so there are stage noises, changing perspectives as singers move, and occasional applause. But the basic sound is very natural, and in no way does it come between the listener and the score. The inclusion of a complete libretto is a big plus, as is the detailed synopsis. The notes on the production are just a bit self-congratulatory, and I wish the booklet told us more about the composer. But those are minor complaints, to be sure.
I had never encountered a note of Cascarino’s music until this set arrived—and based on this experience, I’d very much like to hear more. If you find appealing the idea of a conservative, tuneful, colorful opera by a composer with something important to say in an old-fashioned idiom that still has some life in it, William Penn is for you. Cascarino has created an opera of great dramatic sweep, filled with soaring melody and epic choral scenes. The beauty of his music finds reflection in the masterful production. Conductor Christofer Macatsoris leads a compelling performance, drawing strong playing from his orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and his chorus, the Philadelphia Singers and the Thomas Jefferson University Choir. A cast headed by John Cheek lends vocal stature to the performance.
REVIEWS FROM THE ORIGINAL 1982 PRODUCTION:
Cascarino writes music that is finely crafted and beautifully scored. He is not afraid of melody, and perhaps the most notable thing about "William Penn" is the wealth of glowing melodies that he has strewn throughout the score. Although it is his first opera, Cascarino displays a commanding mastery of the idiom. He composes arias that soar into melodic flight, monologs that contain powerful declamation. He also writes glowing orchestral interludes and choral scenes that convey varied moods, and the production brings this wonderful opera to compelling life.
--Robert Baxter, Camden Courier-Post
This opera is a fascinating work for many reasons, mostly because it's completely tonal in the most lyric and singable way. It's easy to hear traces and influences of Puccini, Delius and Copland and, fortunately, the composer has managed to transform them into a language that's both his own and completely convincing.
The musical texture of "William Penn" unfolds flawlessly, and there's never a moment of insecurity in the opera. Cascarino know precisely what he wanted during the 25 years of its composition, and he delineated his desires with masterful precision. The melodic contour, the harmonic foundation and the delicate orchestration are the work of a true lyric composer.
This was the most lavish operatic production here since the Metropolitan Opera stopped coming to Philadelphia in the 1950s.
--Michael Caruso, News of Delaware County
Homage was paid last night to a historic and a musical Philadelphian. The honoree-in-absentia was William Penn, 338 years old this month. The second dignitary was Romeo Cascarino, who watched his opera "William Penn" unfold in full regalia for the first time. After nearly 25 years in creation, it was undeniably the moment supreme of a lifetime.
Cascarino's score is rich and gentle, appropriately somber when required and intensified with stabs of great passion. The choral pieces are exquisite, notably "Penn's Prayer for Philadelphia" and the setting for the text of the Indian Treaty. The choral work itself was exemplary.
Toni Businger's settings and costumes added immensely to the visual richness of the production. The warm and affirmative audience was unstinting in its demand for curtain calls. Eventually, composer Cascarino came out hand-in-hand with the singers and conductor, receiving a standing ovation.
--Nels Nelson, Philadelphia Daily News
Cascarino's stirring operatic achievement marks a highlight in the performing arts of the city, highlighted by superb performances by baritone John Cheek, who breathes life into the character of Penn, and soprano Dolores Ferraro.
--Bill Davis, Chestnut Hill Local
Romeo Cascarino's opera "William Penn" is a sincere, honest and painstaking work with a great deal of melodic and listenable music, and you cannot help but be moved by the care and professionalism of the score.
Cascarino, who labored on the work for nearly 25 years until finally satisfied, is a composer who follows his own voice and does not care about current trends. John Cheek's beautiful and sonorous bass made Penn into a figure of force and dignity. The William Penn of the opera is an assured man you can believe in, a man whose faith is his life.
--Bill Nazzaro, Bucks County Courier Times
Romeo Cascarino set out on the ultimate course of madness for a composer-writing an opera without any definite prospect of a performance. The "Welcome" shipboard scene is a virtuoso work in itself, with music that runs the gamut of human emotions, from fear to mockery to hope to triumph: a marvelous achievement. The final scene, based on Penn's own settings, are stirring texts, stirringly set.
The production was splendid. The costumes were eye-pleasing and appropriate; his set designs were imposing (the "Welcome," with its great mast and yardarms, is one of the greatest stage sets I've ever seen). The end of the Treaty scene seemed to take place in the same autumn light of the famous painting of the event.
John Cheek was a physically and musically imposing figure as Penn. As the man who is called upon to bring just order from chaos in nearly every scene, he had to be. Dolores Ferraro sang Gulielma with beauty and emotion. Christofer Macatsoris, conducting the expanded Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia in the pit, was in complete control over the proceedings. Certainly other performing groups will be moved to take up the challenge of Cascarino's life work.
--Sol Louis Siegel, ElectriCity