Opera, friends, and a delightful Italian chef made for an enchanting evening for a packed crowd at Sunday Night is Opera Night at La Soffitta. Musicians David Behnke, Jenny Friedman, and Molly Sturges offered up a mix of opera’s greatest hits. “Frankly, the biggest challenge for Sunday is Opera Night is to make sure everything is easygoing for the diners, the restaurant staff, and the performers,” Behnke said. “We are not giving a concert. Our goal is to provide a top-notch musical experience, a great dinner, and a room filled with lively conversation.” Dinner. Opera. Merrymaking. Done.
La Soffitta opened at 5:30 pm, and filled up with people ordering drinks and table-hopping. At about 6, with restaurant goings-on continuing with the staff, the show began. The trio performed two 30-minute sets, with a break in between. Diners were encouraged to continue chatting during the course of the evening, which added to the room’s convivial atmosphere.
Behnke started things off with a bang, singing Rossini’s “Largo al factotum.” As in “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Fi-ga-ro.” He captured the wit of the piece while deftly handling the range, patter, and glee needed. Big applause. Friedman entered the fray with Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.” Her sublime soprano brought sighs and big applause. You may not know this tune by name, but take my word for it, you’d recognize it.
Friedman has principally sung American songbook and musical theater standards. “I’ve always enjoyed listening to opera, but I’m relatively new to singing it,” Friedman said. “I started, at David Behnke’s suggestion, about a year and a half ago. What I find amazing is that it has made my voice stronger in every other genre I sing, with greater range and breath control. In the process of studying this repertoire, with David’s coaching, a voice has begun to emerge that I never knew was there.” Confirmed. Sublime.
There were duets, of course. “If I Loved You,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” caused the entire room to go silent, except for the singers. Really lovely. More sighs. Appropriately enough, a drinking song made the play list. Verdi’s “Brindisi” from La Traviata had the entire place singing along. Badly, but loud. We didn’t ruin the Verdi as Behnke and Friedman kept the standard high, albeit within the spontaneous choral blend.
The idea for Sunday Night came to Behnke, who, with his husband Paul Doherty, is a La Soffitta regular. When living in New York City, Behnke enjoyed going to Asti, an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, where the waiters sang opera, and sang it well. Behnke, Friedman, and Sturges do not wait tables, but they do table-hop. La Soffitta’s Stephen Bowen, who owns the place with his wife Susan Bowen, liked Behnke’s pitch suggesting opera cabaret. Bowen was intrigued, and thought it might be good for off-season business. Bowen is delighted with the response, as he is with his chef. “Salvatore is fantastic,” Bowen said of Chef Salvatore Della Torre. “He brings an authenticity and creativity to his food, which is a perfect combination for La Soffitta. We were very lucky to find a chef from Italy, where high-quality, simple ingredients are the norm. Salvatore sources, as much as he can, from local suppliers, including the Farm Institute, Grey Barn, Morning Glory Farm, and Net Result.”
Patrons loved Salvatore’s food. “My grandmother had a little cafe with five tables in Positano. From the age of 7, I helped out after school,” Salvatore explained. “My grandmother was a very, very, very good cook. Both my mother and grandmother encouraged me to go to culinary school, making sure to learn the business side of things, not just the food side, and that was good advice.” Culinary school, in both Italy and France, followed, then work in a variety of European and Island eateries. The real deal, with real handmade pasta.
Pianist Sturges, who does wonders from the keyboard keeping things together, is another La Soffitta fan. She was pleased to be asked to be the Sunday Night one-man band. “Sometime last fall David approached me with the idea of doing opera at La Soffitta. It sounded like fun. The next thing I know, David gave me a huge binder full of music, at which point I thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.’” It is, though, and she knows it.
Other highlights include Friedman singing Mozart’s “Dove sono” from “Le Nozze de Figaro” (the other Figaro). It was heartbreaking, as it should be, as the character is singing about her rat of a husband, whom she still loves. Baritone Behnke rocked the “Toreador Song” from “Bizet’s Carmen,” the original rock musical. Singing along ensued. Think macho guys in tight pants, chicks with saucy clothing. At La Soffitta, Behnke wore khakis. But it still rocked.
Sunday Night is Opera Night at La Soffitta continues through the spring, every week except Feb. 24 and March 3 and 10. No cover, minimum is to order dinner. Doors open at 5:30 pm, reservations taken for six or more, drop-ins welcome. Some new songs each week. Call 508-687-9448 to confirm start time of music, which is subject to change. For menu, see lasoffitta.com.