San Diego Opera opened its 2023 – 2024 season at the Balboa Theater Wednesday with a stirring vocal concert featuring soprano Latonia Moore and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges accompanied by the San Diego Symphony. Since each singer has won her share of coveted Grammy awards, the company titled the concert Grammy Greats Unite.Opera duets between the two divas garnered the most enthusiastic responses from the ample Balboa Theatre audience. Exuberant collaboration by Moore and Bridges in Puccini’s second act duet from Madama Butterfly “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio” filled the composer’s blooming phrases with a buoyant expectation that the opera’s tragic plot would later tragically destroy. Moore’s Butterfly duet at the Balboa reminded me of her radiant performance in the title role of San Diego Opera’s 2016 production of the beloved Puccini opera.
In the more highly charged emotional second act scene from Verdi’s Aïda, Bridges’ Egyptian princess Amneris craftily exalted her station over the enslaved Aïda. Yet even in Moore’s desperate pleas for mercy from Bridges, the power of her voice easily leveled the playing field. This brilliant Verdi duet proved the high point of the program, especially supported by the San Diego Symphony’s robust accompaniment under conductor Bruce Stasyna. In the impassioned duet “Mira, O Norma” between Norma and Adalgisa from Bellini’s Norma, both Bridges and Moore gave exciting, beautifully placed accounts of the composer’s coloratura extravagance.
The familiar “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from Jacques Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann requires sweeping phrases that float over the orchestra, and Moore and Bridges evoked all the mystery of that opera’s Venetian night tableau with their sumptuous account of this inimitable barcarolle.
In an interview several weeks before their performance on Wednesday, Moore promised the singers would engage in a song swap. True to her word, we heard Moore give a sultry and slightly campy “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen–one of Bridges’ signature roles–and Bridges gave an incandescent account of Serena’s “My man’s gone now” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, the Met opera production for which Moore won one of her Grammy awards.
Bridges included two solo selections from the song cycle Cinco Canciones Negras by the noted Spanish composer of the last century Xavier Montsalvatge. For the lullaby “Canción de cuna para dormir un negrito” she caressed song’s tender lines, but for “Canto negro” she revealed a sexy bravado that suited the song’s text about a tipsy man’s racy night on the town.
In place of Piaf’s iconic “La vie en rose,” Moore decided to substitute “A Piece for Bille,” a striking aria from Terrance Blanchard’s 2021 opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones. This compelling solo kept the soprano in her vocal stratosphere, which in Moore’s case is a truly wondrous place to inhabit. Blanchard’s Met commissioned opera opened the 2021 season and was so well received that in April of 2024, the Met is bringing back this work whose score successfully infuses jazz and gospel into the its musical palette. And Latonia Moore will reprise the role of Bille that she sang in the premiere production. Her performance of the aria at the Balboa made me want to plan a New York excursion next spring to experience this new opera!
San Diego Opera presented this concert at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego on Wednesday, October 25, 2023.