As a tantalizing preview to Opera NEO’s upcoming festival of three staged operas, Friday’s Cabaret concert at the Encinitas Library Concert Hall promises a season of highly charged drama and polished lead singers. This annual program offered a sparkling variety of ensembles and duets from opera, operetta, and musical theater to demonstrate both the skill and the zeal of the 32 young singers who are participating in the festival.

It was no surprise that quintets and other dramatic ensembles from some of the most favored standard repertory—Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Rigoletto and A Masked Ball, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and Rossini’s La cenerentola—made particularly strong impressions. But charming obscurities from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Land of Smiles and his first opera Tatjana, as well as Offenbach’s La vie parisienne and Mozart’s early comic opera The Impressario brought unexpected delight and insight.

Tenor Omar Najmi ignited more than his share of the evening’s dramatic fire, from his sybaritic and aptly predatory characterization of the Duke in Rigoletto to more earnest and ardent love duets from The Land of Smiles and Tatjana. His clarion, luxuriously Italianate voice and elegant phrasing was matched by the smoldering mezzo Rosa Beltrán as Maddelena in Rigoletto’s tavern scene (Act 3), in which Heejung Lee’s distressed Gilda secretly observed them the as they cavorted. Lee infused her supple, glistening soprano with just the right amount of despair while maintaining the arc of her soaring lines. As her father, the title character, bass-baritone Jason Zacher smoothly communicated his stoic strength.

Emily Baker’s ample, gleaming soprano complemented Najmi in their sumptuous duet “Love, what has given you this magic power?” from The Land of Smiles, one of those trademark romantic lyrical effusions that guaranteed the composer the loyalty of his audiences, regardless of the creaky plots they embroidered. A more formal—and indeed more moving—duet from Tatjana paired Najmi with soprano Alexandra Prat in a love-at-first-sight ensemble in which her graceful, stylish phrasing communicated a less carnal infatuation: at the end of their meeting Tatjana gives a religious medal she has been wearing around her neck to he handsome young soldier, sung by Najmi, as a token of her affection.

Prat’s nobility as the wrongly accused Amelia in “Il messagio entri,” that portion of Act 3 in A Masked Ball where the king’s page Oscar delivers the invitation to the royal masked ball, provided the right balance to baritone Jacob Pence’s livid, accusing Renato and soprano HaYoung Jung’s blithe, ebullient air as Oscar. In a modernizing touch, this Oscar was completely distracted listening to music on his cell phone to worry about the accusations flying about him. Conspirators Evan Cooper and Jason Zacher—Samuel and Tom—murmured aptly at the back of the stage.

A quintet that required extended and precise ensemble clarity, the opening of Carmen’s third act (did Opera NEO Artistic Director Peter Kozma experience some divine apparition that commanded him to plunder the third act of every opera?!) among the gypsy smugglers, found Rosa Beltrán’s dark, sultry Carmen surrounded by the brilliantly fused voices of Lauren Zinke, Rachel Deatherage, Max Cook and Jack French.

Opera NEO’s Cabaret did not overlook comedy by any means. In “Marriage Tango” from Joe Di Petro’s musical comedy I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, baritone Jack French and soprano Olga Vresca smartly captured the frustrated attempts of an overworked young married couple attempting to enjoy a night of connubial bliss while attending to annoying children who won’t go to sleep in their room. While Jimmy Roberts’ light score does not exactly command attention, this duo’s dramatic flair and “subtle” mugging completely engaged the audience.

Although Mozart called The Impressario a Singspiel, that designation from the late 18th century is simply what we now call musical comedy. A frothy trio that pitted dueling divas sung by sopranos Harrah Friedlander and Olga Vresca but ineptly mediated by tenor Leo Goodman revealed that the vanity of 18th-century singers has endured to the present day. I was particularly impressed by Vresca’s polished and fervently delivered fioritura, but each singer contributed heartily to the satirical, effusive trio, although the acting perilously approached slapstick. Seasoned opera tenor and coach Enrique Toral directed both of these exuberant comedic scenes.

Probably the overacting award should go to Jacob Pence as Cinderella’s stepfather Don Magnifico in that early scene from La cenerentola where the Prince and his advisors come to the Don’s home looking for the third daughter, Cinderella. Falling all over himself to implore royal favor, Pence should have been supplied kneepads for all of the time he spent kneeling before the Prince’s retinue. His singing, robust and colorful, ranged from smarmy flattery to the royals to invidious warnings his stepdaughter. Jason Zacher portrayed a magisterial Alidoro, while tenor Blair Remmers and mezzo Katy Early—the Prince and Cinderella—impersonated the sweetly lyrical young lovers.

At this Cabaret I experienced few reservations. Although I eagerly confess that Francis Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour” is one of my favorite songs, what was it doing on a program of excerpts from staged productions? It is just a chanson, and dividing it between two singers did not help it in any way. Emily Baker nailed it from the first phrase, and she should have sung the entire song. I woke up this morning with her delicious phrases still lingering in my brain.

And Harrah Friedlander and Rosa Beltrán gave an acceptable account of “We are Women” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, but I strained to follow their articulation of its busy, somewhat tortured text. Everything about Candide is more challenging than meets the eye; the cover of its score should carry a warning label!

Opera NEO attempts to put the entire singing company on stage a couple of times during Cabaret, although the modest stage of the Encinitas Concert Hall barely holds such a number. The intentionally bumptious “Master of the House” from Les misérables opened this Cabaret on a rousing note, and Blair Remmers’ Thénardier made his brawny master of ceremonies take command of the crew with ample vocal prowess and dramatic muscle. Rachel Deatherage’s sang Madame Thénardier with saucy bravado.

The more successful all-cast number, “Par nos chansons . . . célébrons Paris” form Jacques Offenbach’s operetta La vie parisienne displayed superior ensemble unity and brought the first half of the Cabaret to a resounding, affirming conclusion, just as it concludes Offenbach’s operetta. Giving vivacious, fleet, confident leadership to this anthem of Parisian high life were Remmers, Zacher and soprano Alexandra Sanford.

To the hard-working Cabaret crew, the house band, and the piano accompanists: bravissimo! The accomplished keyboard accompanists were Music Director Korey Barrett, Brendon Shapiro, Tessa Hartle, Kelley Hart, and Elden Little.

Opera NEO presented this Cabaret event at the Encinitas Library Concert Hall, Encinitas, CA, on July 27, 2018. It will be repeated on July 28 in the same venue. The company’s staged festival productions open on August 2, 2018, with Franz Lehár’s “The Merry Widow” at the Palisades Amphitheater, 6301 Birchwood, San Diego. The festival, which will also present Mozart’s “Idomeneo” and Handel’s “Partenope” continues through August 12, 2018.

Ken Herman

Ken Herman

Ken Herman, a classically trained pianist and organist, has covered music for the San Diego Union, the Los Angeles Times' San Diego Edition, and for sandiego.com. He has won numerous awards, including first place for Live Performance and Opera Reviews in the 2017, the 2018, and the 2019 Excellence in Journalism Awards competition held by the San Diego Press Club. A Chicago native, he came to San Diego to pursue a graduate degree and stayed.Read more…

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