The Astra Theatre, in Victoria, will once again present Maltese opera lovers with a top class event - or three to be more precise - all in one night as part of this year's Mediterranea festival.

Following last year's successful presentation of Puccini's La Bohème, in which Maltese star Joseph Calleja led a glittering cast, was never going to be easy.

But on October 26 and 28, the Astra will present three operas in a night: the endearing Suor Angelica, the electrifying Pagliacci and the passionate Cavalleria Rusticana.

Conductor Joseph Vella said the performance would be like one big opera; the difference was that this would be three one-acts. "They will be very easy on the ear. Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana are very well known, of course, while Suor Angelica - with only female voices - is not so well known but is a beautiful piece of work and suits the Laudate Pueri choir like a glove."

Mro Vella will be going to Palermo, in Sicily, on Sunday to rehearse with the 50-piece orchestra, the Academia Musicale Siciliana, which will be coming over for the performances.

The choir will be supplemented with Italian voices from Rome to add the right "texture" to the operas, the conductor said.

Preparations for the opera, produced by Abraham Borg, are at an advanced stage. The Astra has secured the services of some of the finest singers whose names feature regularly in prestigious opera houses around the world, as well as the talented Miriam Cauchi.

The international cast, headed by Italian tenor Antonio Interisano, who will be interpreting the leading roles in Pagliacci and Cavalleria, is steadily at work at the Astra.

Mr Interisano has just earned rave reviews for his outstanding interpretations of both roles in Italy, where audiences are notoriously hard to please.

He will be flanked by big-voiced and golden-timbered Rosa Ricciotti who has sung alongside Mr Interisano in Italy, as his ill-fated lover Santuzza. Her dramatic flair coupled with a fabulous stage presence has seen her gracing the boards in the major Italian and European theatres.

Marco Chingari, whose recent appearances at the Astra as Iago (2003), Scarpia (2004) and Marcello (2005), have confirmed him among the local patrons as an Italianate baritone of the very first order, blessed with an imposing stage presence and possessing a velvety voice reminiscent of Gino Bechi, will flank the leading duo as the scheming Tonio-Taddeo (Pagliacci) and the unforgiving Alfio in Cavalleria.

Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Emilia Boteva, protégé of the late diva Ghena Dimitrova, whose La Gioconda at the Astra (2000) was another significant milestone, will be interpreting the demanding role of La zia principessa in Suor Angelica and the anguished Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria.

Ms Boteva is not new to the Astra. Her beautiful round timbre with dark overtones captivated the audiences in Verdi's Ballo in Maschera and Requiem in 2002.

Other foreign singers taking part are Slovenian baritone Jaki Jurgec, who proved his worth as an extremely engaging Schaunard in last year's Bohème. He will be taking on the part of the unfortunate Silvio, whose love is the stuff of tragedy. Young Sicilian tenor Leonardo Alaimo will interpret the role of Peppe-Arlecchino. His elegant voce di grazia is aptly suited to the famous aria Ah Colombina, il tenero which, like the proverbial calm before the storm, unwittingly heralds Pagliacci's dramatic climax.

Tickets are available from the Astra Theatre, tel. 2155 0985;, Gozo Office, South Street, Valletta, tel.2122 7313, D'Amato Music Shop, St John's Street, Valletta, tel. 2123 4348.

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