Friday, July 31, 2009

PORTopera's Sparkling 15th Anniversary Gala

Maine’s only professional opera company, PORTopera, celebrated its 15th anniversary last night in a festive gala at Merrill Auditorium that bubbled like the champagne that seemed to be flowing all night.

Guest Maestro Robert Moody, Music Director for the Portland Symphony, made his company debut leading the orchestra in a sparkling reading of the Overture to Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and having the band onstage allowed opportunities for this terrific “pit band” to shine in the evening's orchestral numbers. This was most notable during the Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana, where the high strings achieved a breathtaking, magical quality that hadn’t quite been captured earlier in their reading of the Act III Prelude from La Traviata. The oft-played Intermezzo has been featured in countless movies and employed in television advertisements selling everything from spaghetti sauce to Kleenex, yet when played so beautifully never fails to move an audience and did so last night.

The gala featured singers from past productions in familiar arias and scenes from opera’s greatest hits (or at least some of them). First up was our Mercutio from last season, Michael Maye. He began “Largo al factotum” from offstage, dashing out, hopping on one leg as though he’d just been “caught in the act” and had found himself in front of an audience. It was a fun "bit." Maye's voice is very comfortable sounding in the top – which seemed to grow in size, and his spirited manner, dashing about the stage, brought Figaro vividly to life. A bit of rushing on the singer's part caused a few timing blips between singer and band, but Moody showed himself to be an excellent “accompanist” paying as much attention and communicating to the singers behind his back, as to his merry band.

Next was the sylphlike Lauren McNeese the delightful lyric mezzo who appeared as Stephano in Romeo et Juliette and made her debut as a wily Rosina in “Barbiere.” Her “Una voce poca fa” was predictably delightful, the coloratura effortless and showing off a damned fine trill. Ms McNeese (as did all the ladies on this night) looked as good as she sounded . . . in a word: sensational.

Staying with Beaumarchais characters, and particularly Rosina was our Mimi, Pamela Armstrong now as the Countess from Nozze di Figaro in what was, for me, the most perfect moment of the evening. Armstrong gave a performance that was extraordinary – it was exactly as Mozart should be and the result was exquisite. Here was purity of sound wed to a lushness of timbre, amazing control of the line and remarkable attention to the wide dynamic of the aria. Halfway through I realized I’d never heard this aria sung better and today have been replaying this moment in my head. (Microphones above the stage had me daring to hope the evening will be released as a fundraiser for the company. Cross your fingers!)

Jan Opalach (Leporello) had fun with Figaro’s Se vuol ballare” and later his “Ah un foco insolito” teased us with what might have been had not the season’s production of “Don Pasquale” been cancelled. He was (as usual) a delight.

Ms, McNeese went from Rosina to Cherubino in a delightful “Voi, che sapete.”

The first half closed with most of Act III of La Boheme, Ms. Armstrong recreating her affecting Mimi, and our Romeo from last season, Gaston Rivero (looking like a pop star in non-standard issue trousers) as her Rodolfo. He was just as terrific, both voices soaring thrillingly out over the orchestra, opening up at the climaxes and taking our collective breath away. Mr. Mayes returned as Marcello joined by Sandra Lopez (Marguerite, Micaela and Nedda) to round out the act, each contributing their considerable all, particularly Mayes in his powerful exchange with Mimi. Though attired in concert gear (white dinner jackets and diva gowns) each number had been staged by company director Dona D. Vaughn, helping bring each work to life and particularly effective in Boheme and the Scenes from Carmen that closed the evening.

Following intermission Mr. Mayes returned with the Prologue from Pagliacci – getting things off to a nice start (and making me want to hear his complete Tonio), followed by Sandra Lopez in a rapturous Qual fiamma . . . Stridono lassu.”

Carmen dominated the balance of the gala and brought back Jeniece Golbourne, graduating from a smokin’ Lola into a smoldering, sizzling, Carmen. Statuesque and swathed in deep aqua, Golbourne moved barely a muscle during the Habanera, making the old chestnut positively sizzle. With a deep, richly fruity sound in the lower voice, all were unprepared for a top that was positively volcanic – and soared mightily through all of Carmen’s music. Joined by four singers from the Emerging Artist program, we were treated to a Smugglers’ Quartet that snapped, crackled and popped with life – Maestro Moody's bouncing on the podium adding a fun visual counterpoint to the proceedings.

Mr. Rivero returned to deliver Jose’s Flower Song (La fleur que tu m’avais jete) and, as good as he was in the Boheme, hearing him here confirmed my thoughts after his Romeo appearance: this is a voice meant for the French repertoire. An attractive reediness that perfectly fits the music, along with a real sense of line and the ability to darken, lighten and sweeten the tone, the sound opening up thrillingly the higher he went.

Mr. Mayes as Escamillo, returned to join them in the final scene (with cameos by Ms. Lopez & Ms. McNeese as Frasquita and Mercedes). Despite the jewel-toned gowns and white dinner jackets (Rivero eschewing his for a black opened shirt with rolled up sleeves – adding to Jose’s dementia) one almost forgot completely this wasn’t a fully staged performance, and our Jose and Carmen raised the ante up to a fever pitch finale that thrilled the entire house.

Self AdmissionTime: I groaned just a bit seeing the final number of the program would be that perennial gala closer “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s “Candide.” I should have been (and properly was) ashamed of myself once the number began. Each singer emerged, from the wings, ambling onto the stage adding one more voice to a performance that grew measure-by-measure to its life affirming climax. The resulting effect was one of those spine-tingling moments that only great music can produce, and while standing ovations have become something of a routine these days, there was nothing for us to do but rise and cheer, and so we did.

Bravo, bravissimo to Dona D. Vaughn and PORTopera – and here’s to another wonderful 15 years!

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