Opera Young Artists fill the huge space of the Amp as Osgood leads CSO with high energy, family spirit

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Photos by Eric Shea.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

All who were in the Amphitheater Saturday evening know that we will hear these voices again — on another stage. But the hope that night, shared around, was far more venial — namely, that we’d hear just a little more right then and there, for the night was yet young and music that special.

But no avail.

We’d been given a powerful wrap-up of eight lead voices and 18 from the corps against the full Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra — all unamplified. That was, we’ll acknowledge, huge. It was from the sextet added to Act 2, or sometimes to Act 3, of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, but crowded here into eight voices, plus the corps. And that spells big sound.

These were the Chautauqua Opera Company apprentice voices, and they are ready, as we have seen earlier this season, for the professional stage. Chautauqua Opera Artistic and General Director Jay Lesenger had just shared a boast that this was totally an acoustic evening, and the apprentices proceeded to stand behind their leader and fully fill the huge space, as they had been doing for the past two hours.

“This is what makes opera opera,” Lesenger said,  introducing each of the excerpts — from Handel, Mozart, Ponchielli, Nicolai, Dvorak, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Britten, Canteloube, and Offenbach. “This is fun, isn’t it?”

Another conceit for the evening was that the selected works all related somehow to the forthcoming Week Four theme of water — and to fulfill the notion, selections staged near rivers or oceans won attention.

The shepherd sings to his lover across the river in Canteloube’s now famously wistful Chants d’Auvergne, performed last year in the CSO series, and reprised this year by Courtney Miller, a mezzo-soprano, with oboist Jan Eberle. Miller is made for art songs, possessing a delicacy and diction very appealing, and the strength to bring it home.

Zack Rabin carried his water mixed with alcohol and staggered through Otto Nicolai’s version of Falstaff, from The Merry Wives of Windsor, a production-value drinking song, and a high-end performance by the bass-baritone and the male corp.

You see there was some leeway to the “Water Matters — Operatically (H2Opera).”

Handel’s Alcina gained entry because it takes place on an island, but that is of little consequence after Dee Donasco in the title role took the house apart. She was the first on stage, a slight woman with a heroic voice that stilled the audience quickly to attention. And as she opened it, tenor Ben Gulley, a big man with a big and gentle voice, continued it with a mighty command of “La donna e mobile,” negotiating the complex slurs in the melismatic text and making them his own — a signature we will come to know — all the while with a charming smile and a shy wave upon appreciation of the audience’s rousing applause and insistence for another bow.

Soprano Rachel Sliker and Wickson fit together in vocal command and tenderness, both capable to raise hair on the back of the neck with their authoritative deliveries, but equally resolved in the hesitations so necessary to the leads in Madame Butterfly, timid about spending that first night together.

Baritone Ricardo Rivera brought tears to his voice with words that didn’t come easily in the penultimate song of Billy Budd, condemned to die at sea and now living through the moonlight to his last hour at dawn — a stirring performance. Mezzo Katherine McGookey took on the other side of attitude, swaggering through Rossini’s aria for the heroine Isabella, The Italian in Algiers, who quickly becomes the agile master of the men who threaten her, as well as the difficult phrasing of the first act’s aria, “Cruda sorte!”

The evening’s high energy and family spirit is a credit to Steven Osgood, the guest conductor for the annual Opera Highlights concert. His style holds high energy and intensity, and the CSO responded in like voice. Lesenger’s choice to include a section from Act 4 of Rigoletto provided more grounding than a single quotation and gave the apprentices a launch better to establish a role.

It is a collaboration of leadership — Lesenger and Osgood — that summons quality, fun and commitment for the young members of the opera company.

Anthony Bannon is the executive director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a multi-arts venue on the campus of Buffalo State College. Previously he was an arts writer for The Buffalo News.

This post has been updated to correct the mention of the tenor performing “La donna è mobile” to Ben Gulley.