Opera NEO’s Annual Aria Avalanche Buries Allied Gardens in Operatic Glory

We know that the Opera NEO Summer Workshop and Festival is truly under way when Artistic Director Peter Kozma stages his annual Aria Marathon. Sunday, July 14, each of the 28 singers from this year’s festival offered their favorite aria, accompanied by the accomplished festival staff pianists, on the chancel of Palisades Presbyterian Church in Allied Gardens.

Opera NEO Aria Marathon 2019 [photo courtesy of Opera NEO]

Each year I sense a slight increase in the musicality and overall level of singing among these young opera singers. Some, of course, have already launched careers with respected opera companies, but part of the thrill of this marathon is experiencing the vocal and interpretive breakthroughs of these young singers.

This proved to be a fine season for mezzo-sopranos, and indeed a mezzo opened each half of the marathon. Stephanie Doche, who impressed us last season in the earnest trouser role of Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo, opened the marathon with a robust “Habanera.” Her Carmen flashed dramatic hauteur, and her darkly shaded voice exuded allure. Next month, she will sing the title role in Opera NEO’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola. After intermission, mezzo-soprano Sarah Wang enchanted us with her vivacious yet seductive “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Yes she produced glorious top notes, but her dynamic subtlety throughout the aria was even more winning. We will hear Wang in Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto next month. The bright color and dramatic edge of Miriam Schildkret’s mezzo-soprano graced Dorabella’s aria “É amore un ladroncello” from Così fan tutte. She will sing the evil stepsister Tisbe in La Cenerentola.

While I appreciated Sarabeth Belón’s Armindo in last season’s Opera NEO production of Handel’s Partenope, I was not prepared for the brilliance of her upper range and her impressive, commanding account of “Sein wir wieder gut” from Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. We will hear her sing Olga in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin this season. Mezzo-soprano Holly Nicole Dodson displayed her gorgeous, dark—and very Russian—vocal timbre in “Pauline’s Aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, a musical virtue that should make her Filippyevna in Eugene Onegin equally moving.

On to the powerhouse tenors—who did not disappoint! Dane Suarez, who sang the impressive title role in Opera NEO’s Idomeneo last year, gave a spine-tingling account of “No, Pagliaccio non son” from Leoncavallo’s beloved Pagliacci. His magnificent, Italianate tenor continues to bloom, and his fiery verismo declamation brought roars of approval from the audience. I am eager to hear his Lensky in next month’s Eugene Onegin. Tenor Mason McDermaid, a strong new voice with Opera NEO, gave an ardent, vocally polished account of “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehar’s operetta Das Land des Lächeln. We will hear more from him in Cavalli’s La Calisto.

Raul Valdez’s passionate account of “No puede ser” from Pablo Sorozábal’s 1936 zarzuela La taberna del pueblo suited his rich vocal instrument, which should serve him quite well as Triquet in Eugene Onegin.

Countertenor Michael Starke brought us into the realm of high Baroque opera with his elegant interpretation of “Qual nave smarrita” from Handel’s Radamisto. His strong dramatic presence and the shimmering focus of his voice will surely blossom as Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto. At the other end of the male vocal range, Paul Hill brough his opulent bass instrument to “Bottom’s Dream” from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, winning the audience with articulate declamation and phrasing, as well as a confident stage presence. He will also sing in La Calisto.

And where would opera be without sopranos? (Don’t tempt me!) This season’s Opera NEO Festival is offering an imposing roster of sopranos. Laura McCauley brought down the house with her aptly manic, explosive presentation of “Non, monsieur mon mari” from Poulenc’s ribald Les mamelles de Tirésias. She was aided in her vocal extravagance with dialogue sung by her fleet accompanist Michael Sherman. They should take this show on the road! But we can hear her in next month’s La Calisto if that does not work out.

Soprano Rachel Blaustein provided a stirring finale to the Aria Marathon with her “Par le rang . . .Salut à la France” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment.” With apparent ease her voluptuous phrasing soared into her gleaming high register. I will be surprised if she does not make a splendid Tatyana in Eugene Onegin! Emily Baker set off fireworks in “Csárdás” from Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. With a bright and slightly edgy soprano, her fiery account ended in a glass-shattering final cadence. She will also appear in La Calisto.

Danielle Bavli proved that colortura sopranos can do more than astonish with their agility. In her gracefully confident “Ah! Douce enfant” from Massenet’s Cendrillon, she charmed her listeners with the warmth and tendresse of her phrasing in addition to impressing them with the shimmer of her sprightly fioritura. She will also grace the La Calista cast next month. Equally confident in the French repertory, Juliet Schlefer gave us an energetically radiant “Du gai soleil” from Massenet’s Werther. We will hear her in La Calista.

I saved praising the baritones for this review’s coda because baritones are by nature the most patient Fach in the world of opera. Brian James Myer’s resplendent baritone and his assured dramatic command brought out the cynical subtext of Hamlet’s drinking song “Ò vin dissipe la tristesse” from Ambroise Thomas’ grand opera based on the great Shakespeare play. In Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Myer will sing Dandini. Jared Lesa’s radiant mid-range and assured mastery of Verdi’s demanding cantilenas produced a vivid “O Carlo, ascolta” from Don Carlo. We will hear more of Lesa as Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola.

Commanding baritone Garrett Sanderson sang an unusually persuasive “Bella siccome un angelo” from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. In Eugene Onegin he will perform the role of the Commander. South African bass baritone Langelihle Mngxati pulled out all the stops as he gave a dramatic, quite athletic account of “Papageno’s Suicide Aria” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. We will hear him next month as Giove in La Calista.

Kudos to the four accompanists, each of whom communicated the wide range of musical styles on this program with laudable authenticity and enviable finesse: John Elan, Natasha Talukdar, Michael Sherman, and Kihwa Kim. I contend that it is easier to prepare an entire recital of Beethoven piano sonatas than to master the orchestral reductions of half a dozen opera arias, especially if Rossini or Mozart are among the aria composers! Their sympathetic piano support of these young singers was simply nonpareil.

This program was presented by Opera NEO at the Palisades Presbyterian Church, 6301 Birchwood St, San Diego, on Saturday, July 13, 2019. The festival runs through August 11, 2019, in various San Diego County venues.


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