Opera Neo’s 2023 Summer Opera Festival Opens at The Conrad with Aria Gala

Sunday evening, Opera Neo opened its 2023 Summer Opera Festival with the traditional Aria Gala, held in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Seventeen young artists each offered a single aria appropriate to the singer’s range and vocal type, accompanied by Opera Neo’s accomplished staff pianists.

2023 Aria Gala Singers and Accompanists [photo (c.) Sara Womble]

Oznur Tülüoglu, who gave a winning account of the title role in Opera Neo’s last season staging of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, opened the program with “Chacun le sait” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. Her clear, supple soprano communicated the aria’s exuberance, and the composer’s daunting figuration gave her ample opportunity to display her gleaming highest register.

Rachael Bell’s bright, commanding mezzo-soprano did justice to “Que fais-tu blanche tourterelle?” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, another staple of French opera. Her energetic drive and witty characterization of the aria were complemented by her compelling, sophisticated phrasing, as well as by Korey Barrett’s suave support at the piano.

Handel’s Alcina is one of his more regularly revived operas, so it was a delight to hear Emily Helenbrook sing Morgana’s lovely aria “Tornami a vagheggiar.” Her lithe, well-focused soprano carried her through the aria’s flashy fioriture with uncanny ease, and I admired both the shimmer of her voice and the care accompanist Fumiyasu Kawase displayed supporting her vocal flights.

Countertenor Keith Weihmeier, who triumphed as the villainous Polinesso in last season’s production of Ariodante by Handel, returned to Opera Neo to sing “I Know a Bank,” from Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His assertive declamation and robust vocal color suited this Britten gem to a T, and pianist Corey Barrett wisely tempered the composer’s ample dissonances in the score’s keyboard reduction.

Baritone Cole Bellamy, a new recruit to Opera Neo, employed his rich baritone and fearless declamation in a commanding account of “Uzhel ta samaya Tatyana” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Another gem from the Romantic repertoire, the “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka, was sung with gorgeous phrasing and a compelling sense of style that unleashed its dramatic depth by soprano Ripley Lucas-Tagliani.

I am glad to assign high marks for mezzo-soprano Lauren Randolph’s dramatic interpretation of the familiar “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, and I would encourage her to open up her voice for a more compelling, inviting sound.

In April, bass-baritone Steele Fitzwater proved an excellent Don Basilio in Opera Neo’s production in Balboa Park’s Spanish Village of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, but I thought the aria “Ves’ tabor spit” from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko revealed more of the dynamic power of his voice, and his authoritative stage presence was indeed welcome.

In Opera Neo’s production last year of Handel’s Ariodante, Ashley Fabian gave a fine account of Ginerva, so it was not surprising that she triumphed with Lucia’s first-act aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, “Regnava nel silenzio.” Her sophisticated interpretation clearly defined Lucia’s unstable mental state while navigating the composer’s daunting coloratura flourishes with immaculate definition.

Tenor Charles Calotta revealed a muscular tenor voice as he confidently delivered the fiery cabaletta from Verdi’s Macbeth “O figli, o figli miei.” His brilliant tenor with its bright edge easily filled the hall.

Bass-baritone Matthew Cook’s bright diction and idiomatic German made his sprightly account of “Papagena! Papagena! Papagena!” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte sparkle. The celebrated Queen of the Night aria “Die hölle Rache” from that opera found an agile, convincing interpreter in soprano Elise Hurwitz, and Fumiyasu Kawase’s fleet accompaniment created equal drama without overwhelming the singer.

The warmth of mezzo-soprano Katherine Cosenza’s strong upper range and her elegant phrasing made a persuasive case for Adalgisa’s aria “Sgombra e la sacra selva” from Bellini’s Norma. Andrew Bearden-Brown’s light tenor comfortably dispatched Handel’s charming, flowing lines in “É un folle, un vile affetto” from Alcina, although Nyle Matsuoka’s less than subtle accompaniment proved distracting rather than supportive.

I appreciated mezzo-soprano Darya Narymanava’s beautifully sustained cantabile line and the depth of her interpretation of “Podrugi milyye” from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. Soprano Sara Mortensen gave a jaunty, witty account of “It’s My Wedding” from the 2006 opera The Enchanted Pig by the English composer Jonathan Dove. Known for its unusually large number of high C’s, Donizetti’s aria “Ah mes amis” from La fille du régiment is a favorite aria for tenors who find that note an easy reach. Marcus Huber hit all the high notes, but the rest of the aria sounded uncharacteristically tame.

This concert was presented by San Diego’s Opera Neo at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Sunday, June 18, 2023.

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