Opera NEO’s Sumptuous Buffet of Arias and Ensembles

It is tempting to describe opera fans’ attraction to the art form as a kind of addiction—especially if you have ever seen a production of Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata. Caught midway between the final performance of San Diego Opera’s Rigoletto two weeks ago and the opening of the company’s Three Decembers by Jake Heggie in March, serious San Diego opera aficionados eagerly gathered for Opera NEO’s Saturday concert of opera selections titled “Love Is in the Air.”

Four of the company’s seasoned singers offered an impressive collection of favorite arias and ensembles interspersed with a few worthy rarities. Some performances transcended the usual polite air of an aria recital and turned the chancel of the Palisades Presbyterian Church into an emotionally vivid opera stage.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Doche lit the fire with her bold, smoldering “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, and I was ready to call 911 when tenor Dane Suarez as Don José reacted with equal zeal to Doche’s impassioned, seductive “Seguidilla” from the same act of Carmen. Suarez topped off this fiery Carmen fix with a heart-rending account of “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” the aria in which Don José confesses his desperate love for the fickle Carmen. Suarez also lavished his ample tenor on Lensky’s confessional aria “Kuda, kuda” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, readily engaging that trademark Russian pathos and existential remorse. Opera NEO will stage this popular Tchaikovsky grand opera in its 2019 August summer festival with Suarez as Lensky.

Anna-Lisa Hackett in Opera NEO’s 2018 festival production of The Merry Widow [Photo (c.) Gary Payne]

Soprano Anna-Lisa Hackett joined Suarez in that all too sweet finale of the first act of Puccini’s La bohème, “Che gelida manina” and “O soave fanciulla.” Her striking yet effortless soprano matched Suarez’s vocal power magnificently, and it was easy to imagine these two accomplished young singers tearing into these roles in a major opera house.

I was quite taken by Kelley Hart’s three songs from Fancesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, one of the Baroque gems Opera NEO is reviving to present this August in its summer festival. Although Cavalli’s subtly meandering arioso style was quite sophisticated for 1650, his solos do not pack the visceral punch of the ornate da capo arias produced by G. F. Handel and his 18th-century cohorts. Nevertheless, Hart’s supple, beautifully focused vocal line unlocked the emotional depths of these pieces. From Rossini’s La cenerentola, another opera this company will present in August 2019, Doche sang “Non piu mesta” with triumphant grandeur, unleashing cascades of thrilling fioritura, a clear indication that in this title role, Doche will prove an excellent choice for Rossini’s bel canto Cinderella.

Two duets added dimension to the program: Hackett and Doche’s vivacious account of the playful “Penderò” from Mozart’s Cosiì fan tutte, replete with clever body language, and Hart and Doche’s soaring, shimmering “Presentation of the Rose” duet from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Bubbly ensembles from Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus opened and closed the concert, but among the lighter selections, Suarez’s Mario Lanza tribute performance of “Be My Love” (from the 1950 motion picture “The Toast of New Orleans”) easily stole the show.

Pianist Korey Barrett accompanied the entire program with his usual sophisticated, bravura renditions of demanding orchestral reductions. His variety of touch and attack completely transformed the piano’s sound into an astonishing variety of orchestral colors, and how he made the piano sound like a celesta in those magical descending chords in the Strauss Rosenkavalier duet is astonishing.

This concert was presented by Opera NEO on Saturday, February 16, 2019, at the Palisades Presbyterian Church, 6301 Birchwood St., San Diego. Opera NEO’s 2019 Summer Festival runs from July 14, 2019, to August 11, 2019, in various San Diego venues.

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