San Diego Opera’s gala 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, heard Saturday, April 18, came about as a prudent compromise by the company’s new leadership as they restructured the 2015 season. Keeping three of the four planned operas on the schedule—La bohème, Don Giovanni and Nixon in China—they helped balance the books by transforming the fourth, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, to a gala concert, retaining some of the artists already contracted for Tannhäuser for the concert.
At times, experiencing three hours of favorite arias, duets, and choruses seemed like skipping dinner and going straight to Karen Krasne’s Extraordinary Desserts for half a dozen servings of gourmet cakes, tortes, and mousses. Nevertheless, some superb performances and rewarding musical reminiscences transpired between the evening’s parade of congratulatory introductory speeches and the Bernstein finale.
Tenor René Barbera, the only guest soloist making a company debut, came close to stealing the show. Early in the program in that oft-excerpted tenor-baritone duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (according to some, the only reason to attend that silly opera), he revealed a bright, Italianate tenor color and the ability to land those climactic stratospheric cadences with utter confidence.
But it was his comic opera arias, his spirited stage presence and active engagement with the audience that made us temporarily forget we were attending a concert and conjured the illusion that an actual opera was taking place on stage. In his “Ah! mes amis” form Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, he turned to the men of the chorus standing on risers behind the orchestra and bantered jovially with them as if they were the platoon of soldiers standing around him stage center. Yes, he hit all nine high C’s, but he had the audience in the palm of his hand before he started knocking them off.Soprano Emily Magee didn’t need stagecraft to win our hearts with her sumptuous accounts of two arias, Puccini’s ubiquitous (and beloved!) “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca and the rarely sung “Glück das mir verblieb” (sometimes called Marietta’s Song) from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. Effortless phrasing and a creamy, unforced timbre are virtues any spinto would covet, and that is how her voice filled the room.
Basses rarely play kindly roles, so they have to work harder for audience approval. But the imposing German bass Reinhard Hagen had no trouble making his case with Prince Gremin’s big aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin or Sarastro’s “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Hagen’s elegant phrasing, stylish rubato and depth of tone in even the lowest register equalled his strong emotional identification with the text.
In Baron Scarpia’s “credo” aria (his self-identifying line is “Tosca, you make me forget God!”) that leads into Puccini’s choral “Te Deum” and closes the first act of Tosca, baritone Stephen Powell clearly communicated Scarpia’s inflamed passion for the title character with virile phrasing that built to an ominous conclusion. Chorus Master Charles Prestinari’s singers raised the roof with the glorious and solemn “Te Deum,” demonstrating what a stellar ensemble these singers have become under his leadership.
Well-chosen dynamic contrasts as well as heroic declamation in the chorus’ “Entrance of the Guests”from Wagner’s Tannhäuser made me momentarily sad that we would not be hearing this opera any time soon in San Diego. I was less enthusiastic about Lise Lindstrom’s aria “Dich, teure Halle” from that opera, finding the hard edge of her dramatic soprano slashing through the orchestra at odds with the warm-hearted praise of the text.
She changed my mind with a radiant account of Turandot’s familiar “In questa reggia,” where Lindstrom chose a warmer timbre and rounded phrasing that suggested there was more to the Chinese princess than her disdain for her princely suitors. And Lindstrom’s “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde was moving, even transcendent, especially with the orchestra’s lush string halo surrounding her.
Comprimario bass-baritone Scott Sikon has sung in countless San Diego Opera productions, and his “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro revealed the confident professionalism that has made him indispensable. Delilah’s celebrated seduction aria from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah as interpreted by mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti exuded imperceptible allure, but she was unbowed by the composer’s long, sinuous phrases.
Conductor Karen Kamensek pulled a great ensemble sound from the symphony, and the many solos—especially woodwind—complemented the singers with evident empathy. For the showy “Triumphal March” form Verdi’s Aida, extra tumpets added the requisite brass splendor. Only an elephant was missing from this musical procession that brought the second half of the concert to its rousing climax.