Franchi memorial concerts end on high note

Stonington — The one thing that has come to be expected at the annual Sergio Franchi Memorial Concert on the grounds of the 240-acre Franchi estate is that something unexpected will happen.

On Saturday, for a while, it seemed the surprise would be the fly-by of a solo plane carting a sign that read "Keep the Music Playing. Grazie Sergio." 

The crowd of at least 5,000 applauded the plane's first sortie around the estate, knowing that this was expected to be the final concert in an annual series that dates to the 1990s, but became a little perturbed when the rather loud machine continued circling during one of the most anticipated solos of the night, a Puccini aria sung by James Valenti, drowning out much of the music.

Then some magic happened. Toward the end of the three-hour concert, Sergio Franchi's widow, Eva, introduced a 10-year-old girl from North Stonington, Julia Taylor, who was sitting in the crowd, not sure, her parents said later, that she would get a chance to sing.

Eva said Julia, whose father had done some maintenance work at the estate, had once showed up at her door and given her a taste of her big voice.

"Am I going to be on your stage one day?" Eva quoted Julia as asking.

"Come on up and show me what you got," Eva said as the tiny girl came on stage.

Julia wowed the crowd with an electric version of Puccini's famous aria "O mio babbino caro," absolutely blasting the high notes as the crowd gave an extended standing ovation.

Afterward, she was bombarded with autograph requests as she joined her proud parents, Erick and Patty Taylor, near the stage. The Taylors run Devon Point Farm in North Stonington, and said this was Julia's debut singing experience.

The rest of the concert featured more seasoned talent, opera singers who have been coming back for years, including Jesus Garcia, Alfio Bonanno and Susan Neves, backed by a 32-piece orchestra led by David LaMarche, a Westerly native who now conducts the American Ballet Theatre.

Some of the highlights included Matthew White's scintillating version of Puccini's "Che gelida manina," Lauren Leon's stratospheric doll's aria from Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffman," the lovely duet by Giada and James Valentini of "The Prayer" and the soaring version of "Nessun Dorma" by four of the Sergio Franchi Tenors. Roberto Iarussi added a gutty performance of the classic "My Way" made famous by Frank Sinatra.

But the main focus, as always, was Eva's charming introduction of the singers and the beautiful grounds that included a tour of the Franchi house as well as a collection of classic cars on view before the concert.

"What a spectacular piece of property," said Amy Perry of New London, who noted this was her first time at the show — and the last because Eva announced Saturday's 25th anniversary concert would be her final one.

"It's just a beautiful thing to do every year," said Lisa Shadle of Mystic, who was attending the concert with friend Liv Karlsvic.

Sandra Coutant, an English teacher at Stonington High School, and sister Christine Fortunato of Wethersfield have been coming to the Franchi concerts for at least 15 years, and have mastered the picnic lunch that most revelers bring with them.

"We're really going to miss it," Coutant said.

"Eva — she has such grace," Fortunato said. "It's always been like we're among family when we come."

Eva likes to pick a theme for her outdoor concert, and many attendees this year adhered to the "summer white" dress that she suggested. Sun bonnets and frilly dresses were seen among many of the women, while men charmed with their straw hats and occasional bow ties.

It's always been an event that brings a little bit of Hollywood glamour to southeastern Connecticut.

After all, Sergio and Eva Franchi never shied from the limelight, even as they moved here to their Stonington estate in 1979. They could be seen sharing a laugh inside a succession of classic cars that Sergio was known for, even after he was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatments that turned his dashing, dark curls to a bald pate.

He died in 1990, and a few years later the ever-effervescent Eva decided to honor his legacy by hosting an annual concert featuring promising young tenors, many from New York City. Eventually, sopranos and even baritones were added to the roster as well, backed by a good-sized orchestra.

Since then, Eva, now in her mid 70s, has raised more than $1 million from the concert, and handed out hundreds of scholarships to help train a new generation of singers. Some years the event was so popular that hundreds were reportedly turned away at the gate.

Concert-goers were always treated to Sergio Franchi memorabilia and photographs along with a look at his car collection, until most of it was sold over a decade ago. Among his collection: 1927 and 1955 Rolls-Royces, a 1930 Isotta Fraschini convertible and a 1925 Mercedes with an aluminum body and wooden bumpers that Sergio still was working on restoring when he died.

Eva first spied her future husband in 1964, at the famed Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. Six years later, they finally met in person, and they married in 1978, the second marriage for each.

“He loved New England,” she once said. “He called it the green ocean.”

As for the concert, she once confided, “My dream is to give the world the next great tenor. Because every generation has one.”

Sergio was certainly one of the most successful tenors of his era, becoming one of the first operatic singers to cross over into mainstream pop, performing at the White House and singing at both Carnegie Hall and on the Vegas strip. He starred on Broadway and had many television appearances, including dozens of spots on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The Sergio Franchi Memorial Concerts became a local tradition, bringing world-class singers to a first-class rural estate, including James Valenti, Latonia Moore and David Miller. But Eva canceled last year's show amid a tough time for her personally, including the deaths of several close friends. Then she announced that this year would be the last concert, declaring the 25th the perfect time to close it down and indicating she would be amenable to selling the estate if the right person came around.

She also has hinted that she might stick around long enough to host a Christmas concert in a more intimate setting in her backyard.

But concert-goers Saturday seemed to be hardened to the idea that the concert was at an end, though some suggested that the property should be turned into a permanent venue similar to the old Summer Music series in Waterford.

"Seeing you all out there, it's more than I ever dreamed of," Eva Franchi told the audience. "Thank you for coming. ... Sergio would be so proud."

l.howard@theday.com

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