Opera Neo Opens Its Summer Festival with Festive Aria Gala at The Conrad

Sunday afternoon at The Conrad in downtown La Jolla, a baker’s dozen of rising opera stars offered their best arias in Aria Gala, the opening salvo of this year’s Opera Neo Summer Festival. From familiar chestnuts such as Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville and Gilda’s “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto to lesser known excerpts— “Tarquinius does not wait” from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and “After You Hear Me Out” from Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied—the audience was treated to a satisfying range of styles and approaches.

Vocalists and pianists from July 10 Opera Neo Aria Gala [photo (c.) Gary Payne Photography]

As usual, sopranos dominated the company’s roster of vocalists. Sara Womble’s vocal prowess, especially her exuberant fioritura, made Marie’s “Salut à la France” from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment particularly joyous.  A trusted Opera Neo regular, Womble has sung in the company’s recent productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute as well as his The Marriage of Figaro. Ashley Fabian’s light, supple soprano imbued “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette with excited anticipation.

I admired the drive of Emily-Margaret Ceres’ “Da tempeste il legno infranto,” Cleopatra’s furious aria from the third act of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, but a bit more polish would help those phrases that soar into her vocal stratosphere. Jade Dashá’s shapely, well-supported vocal line helped communicate the complex emotions of “After You Hear Me Out” from Cipullo’s recent opera Glory Denied, the story of an American Vietnam War POW’s complicated return after years of captivity.

In Opera Neo’s Budapest co-production with the Hungarian State Opera of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, Öznur Tülüoglu sang a winning Sandrina. Her deeply felt “Caro nome” on Sunday proved unusually persuasive because she navigated Verdi’s vocal complexities with a level of assurance that allowed Gilda’s emotional state to override the composer’s flamboyant writing.

Baritone Kyle White, tenor Eric Laine, and mezzo-soprano Anna Trombetta also proved their mettle in the Budapest La finta giardiniera production. White’s colorful, resonant baritone easily filled The Conrad, and his jocular account of “Largo al factotum” did not at all diminish his command of the aria that is recognized far beyond the staid confines of the opera house. Kudos to Eric Laine for projecting the gravitas of Britten’s “Tarquinius does not wait,” skillfully traversing the composer’s acute, angular themes in the opening half and deftly shifting to secure but aptly fiery declamation in the agitated second half. Anna Trombetta’s compelling declamation delivered the requisite command to her stylish “Nobles seigneurs, salut!” from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.

A masterful rage aria from Handel’s Partenope “Furibondo spira il vento” gave countertenor Keith Wehmeier ample opportunity to confidently blaze through teeming, furious figurations. Bass Andrew Boisvert communicated the paternal grief of “Il lacerato spirito” from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegro, supplying the composer’s broad, arched phrases with generous, well-supported vocal persuasion. In “All’afflito el dolce il pianto” from Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, mezzo-soprano Miriam Mouawad’s graceful cantabile line conveyed the warmth of this bel canto aria.

Tenor Brian Skoog offered the program’s sole operetta selection, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Franz Léhar’s The Land of Smiles.  I admired Skoog’s stylish phrasing, but his modest dynamic range made the aria sound too much like an early Romantic art song.

Another admired Opera Neo veteran, Stephanie Doche who sang the title role in last season’s production of Handel’s Serse, closed the program with Rosina’s celebrated aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. A skilled coloratura mezzo-soprano, Doche navigated this lavishly ornamented aria with scintillating precision.

Pianists Korey Barrett and Kihwa Kim provided spirited and unfailingly well-tailored piano accompaniment to these young vocalists, rendering even the most opaque keyboard reductions of the original orchestra parts with pellucid fidelity.

This concert was presented by Opera Neo on Sunday, July 10, 2022, in the Baker-Baum Concert Hall of The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

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