Entertainment, Reviews

Delightful Concert of Opera Highlights at HCA

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by David K. Rodgers

GREENSBORO – The Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro was the venue for a delightful concert of opera highlights by five very professional singers, accompanied by an excellent pianist from Opera Vermont Thursday, Sept. 14.

The well-chosen repertoire ranged from Mozart to Puccini, Verdi, Leoncavallo, Bizet, Schoneberg, Bock and Bernstein.

The program began with a trio from “Cosi Fan Tutte,” the comic opera written in 1789 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). In the first scene, two men are discussing with an older friend whether the women they are courting will remain faithful to them if they go away, and they decide to make a test. Joshua Collier, Cailin Manson and Nicholas Tocci were the tenor, baritone and bass singers respectively in this lively and humorous interchange, all of them with expressive voices, strong projection and animated acting that brought the music to life on the stage.

Soprano Kathleen Echols was next with Mimi’s sad aria concerning her former lover, Rudolfo, from “La Boheme” by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), composed in 1896, which she sang with appropriate feeling.

Another selection from the last act of the same opera brought together Rodolfo and his friend Marcello in a fine duet, sung by Collier and Tocci with impressive skill.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912) wrote “Thais” in 1894 and Cailin Manson performed a piece from that opera with his well-phrased baritone voice.

“La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi (1815-1901) has remained one of his most popular works since he created it in 1851-53. Kyra Miller as the heroine, Violetta, and Joshua Collier as her lover, Alfredo, showed their vocal and dramatic talents in a duet full of beautiful melodies. A selection from Act II demonstrated Verdi’s consummate brilliance in developing engaging human interactions, where Alfredo’s father tries to persuade Violetta to leave his son for the sake of their family’s reputation. Kathleen Echols and Nicholas Tocci were very impressive in communicating the roller coaster emotions of this tragic scene with both their voices and their acting.

“Vesti la giubba” from “I Pagliacci” by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) is a powerful aria which Enrico Caruso made famous in some of the earliest 78 recordings, not long after it was first heard on the stage in 1892, The clown, Canio, makes the devastating discovery of his wife’s unfaithfulness, which Collier sang with its full emotional effect.

After the intermission, Nicholas Tocci took the role of Escamillio, the bullfighter in the “toreador” theme from “Carmen” by Georges Bizet (1838-1875), written in the same year that he died. The bravado melody is one of the high points of this work, so rich in memorable tunes, which Tocci sang with genuine enthusiasm.

Puccini’s “Tosca” is one of the most dramatically convincing of all operas and has terrific momentum from the opening scene to the tragic ending, and could easily be given a contemporary setting in its (sadly) still relevant indictment of totalitarianism. Written in 1900, the two main characters, the painter, Mario, and the singer Tosca, find their love imperiled by political forces beyond their control. Here Joshua Collier and Kathleen Echols handled this duet from the first act with admirable finesse in a sequence of truly exquisite melodies.

In a shift to more recent works, the three male singers presented selections from “Les Mis” by Claude-Michel Schonberg, with poetic lyrics by Alain Boublil. Tocci lead off with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, in which he feels intense remorse for his friends who died in the French revolution, who used to meet in a certain cafe. Cailin Manson gave a moving rendition of “Stars”, and then Collier brought out the pathos of a father hoping that his son has not been killed in battle with “Bring Him Home”.

From the Broadway musical “She Loves Me,” came the song “Vanilla Ice Cream,” written by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Gene Harnick, to which Kathleen Echols added a humorous contemporary touch by pretending to text on a cell phone to her pen pal, apologizing for the disaster of the previous evening while being distracted by the unexpected gift of a dairy treat.

The last two numbers of the concert were composed by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). First, Maria’s heartfelt lament, “Somewhere,” from “West Side Story” (1957), which Kyra Miller sang with a depth of feeling, and then the whole ensemble joined in “Make Our Garden Grow” from “Candide” (1956), which is a love song but was pushed further to also be encouragement for the future growth of Vermont Opera.

The appreciative audience responded with a standing ovation for a most enjoyable evening of opera masterpieces.

The pianist who accompanied each piece, Claire Black, was superb in her rapport with the singers, supporting the vocal line seamlessly without ever intruding on it, keeping a perfect balance.

Vermont Opera is an outgrowth of Barn Opera in Brandon. Founded in 2012, the organization has given some 18 productions from a renovated old barn and are now adding a new project, bringing opera to a wider audience around the state by developing partnerships with the Southern Vermont Arts Center and our own Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro.

In February, Vermont Opera will return here for a full length production of Puccini’s “Tosca!” In the meantime, they will be presenting a child-friendly version of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” (Cinderella) in Brandon on October 13 and 14.

Tricia Welsh is executive director, Joshua Collier is artistic director and Cailin Manson is musical director for the company. For more information go online to operavermont.com

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