Stephen Powell’s Star Shines Brightly in San Diego Opera’s “One Amazing Night”

Baritone Stephen Powell chose the prologue to Leoncavallo’s beloved verismo opera Pagliacci to open Wednesday’s San Diego Opera concert at the Balboa Theatre. In his impassioned “Si può, si può,” Powell warned the audience about the soul-baring emotional experiences that were about to unfold, much as he did when he portrayed the role of Tonio in the company’s 2014 production of Pagliacci at the Civic Theatre.

Stephen Costello, Stephen Powell & Bruce Stasyna [photo (c.) Edward Wilensky]

While we savored Powell’s hearty baritone and treasured the depth of emotions his artistry exposed in that extended aria, warnings of treacherous aesthetic adventure proved quite unnecessary. “One Amazing Night,” as the program featuring tenor Stephen Costello, baritone Powell, and members of the San Diego Symphony was titled, offered a pleasant potpourri of arias, three flashy duets, and a few orchestral interludes. Eminently respectable, but not at all amazing.

Although the evening’s vocal offerings were equally divided, Powell’s interpretive depth as well as the sheer command of his generously proportioned voice dominated the program, whether he was offering familiar arias such as Renato’s defiantly accusing “Eri tu” from Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera and the innocent wonder of “Song to the Evening Star” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser or the ardor of Salvatore Cardillo’s Neapolitan song “Cor ‘ngrato.”

The bright, splendidly Italianate quality of Costello’s tenor gave two Puccini arias, “Che gelida manina” and “Addio fioriti asil” their necessary color and edge, although Costello tended to approach his climactic notes with the care exhibited by a jeweler unwrapping an antique brooch. Powell luxuriated in every phrase of his arias, while Costello seemed to be glad they were safely behind him.

The duets clearly pleased the ample Balboa audience, from the fraternal camaraderie of “E liu . . . desso” from Verdi’s Don Carlo to that fervent Bizet duet from The Pearl Fishers sung by two men hopelessly besotted of the same unapproachable woman “Au fond du temple saint.” The singers struck just the right balance between their voices, and Bruce Stasyna conducting the San Diego Symphony gave them luxurious orchestral support.

Stasyna led a thoughtfully detailed account of the Overture from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II, and Concertmaster Jeff Thayer’s glowing, nuanced solo in the evergreen “Meditation” from Thaïs could not have been better. The orchestra’s Overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio, however, lacked dynamic contrast and sounded under rehearsed.

As a programmed encore, Powell and Costello offered their vibrant rendition of Augustin Lara’s rousing song “Granada.”

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