Heavyweight title bout

Opera Young Artists show their mettle in CSO-backed evening of selections from Wagner, Verdi

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Photos by Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Guest review by John Chacona

“Wagner vs. Verdi” screamed the headline of the weekend issue of The Chautauquan Daily. If you’re reminded of a heavyweight title bout, well, as far as 19th-century opera is concerned, that’s a pretty accurate way to look at things.

The bicentenary of both composers is being celebrated this year, so there’s no shortage of Wagner and Verdi on offer; but then, when ever is there a shortage of Wagner and Verdi? Still, an evening of music by the twin titans is a credible idea for an opera gala, and not coincidentally, a pretty good way to test the mettle of the Chautauqua Opera Company Apprentices and Studio artists who were showcased on Saturday evening.

Wagner was up first, and the Dresden Destroyer came out swinging with the one-two punch of 12 snarling, spear-toting sopranos in an unbilled appearance during the “Ride of the Valkyries,” which kicked off the show. It was a hair-raising haymaker of an opening gambit, and it was a complete knockout.

The strategy didn’t last. After Jay Lesenger, Chautauqua Opera’s artistic/general director, delivered some droll notes about the first half of the program, Wagner settled into a rope-a-dope of mostly starry-eyed love songs.

It was a shrewd choice that suited the young voices, long on fervor but perhaps lightweights when it comes to the life experience needed for the big Wagner roles.

The audience heard baritone Ted Federle’s appealing lyric baritone in Wolfram’s song to the evening star from Tannhauser, delivered with appropriately dreamy legato. Rachelle Pike’s mezzo-soprano landed harder in two compositions from Wagner’s “Wesendonck-Lieder” song cycle, seizing on the ripe romanticism of Mathilde Wesendonck’s rather pulpy, poetic mash notes to her beloved — and at the time — married composer. Why not? She was married, too.

Just as Lesenger promised, it was lovely to hear the wedding chorus for Lonhengrin sung by the fresh voices of the small body of choristers stationed in the loft behind the CSO. Staying with Lohengrin, Elsa’s Dream entered momentarily deeper territory via the darker, more spinto, soprano voice of Kristin Schweke.

But the highlight of the early rounds was the affecting lyricism tenor Aaron Short brought to Steersman’s ballad from The Flying Dutchman. His voice, full of yearning for his absent, shore-bound beloved, made one believe in every word he sang.

After intermission, it was Verdi’s turn. The Traviata prelude and Smokin’ Joe counter-punched with all the weapons in his arsenal: roundhouse melodies, delivered with throbbing passion (and a lot of vibrato and hairpin dynamics).

Nabucco was Verdi’s first hit, and Fenena’s touching prayer, “Oh dischiuso è il firmamento” (“Oh The heavens are open!”) was sung with juicy tone, if not always perfect control, by big-voiced mezzo-soprano Ellen PutneyMoore. But Verdi was just setting up his rival for the decisive blow.

“La donna è mobile” has always been a showstopper, but if ever a big punch were being telegraphed, it was this one, from the moment tenor Jon Jurgens strutted onstage, his tie undone and tuxedo jacket slung over his shoulder. Jurgens has the lecherous smirk of a natural rake. He is, in other words, the embodiment of the cocksure Duke of Mantua and he brought the swag with a Rat-Pack nonchalance.

All this would have meant little if he didn’t deliver the goods — and boy, did he ever. His bright, accurate tenor had plenty of pop, and his Italian diction was sure, almost streetwise. It was a deadly performance, and probably the high point of the evening — but not the only one.

Following Jurgens’ killer turn with the witty delicacy of the forest scene from Falstaff seemed like a dicey strategy, but Mandy Brown’s lovely, bell-like lyric soprano and charming stage presence were completely winning. So too was the taffeta accompaniment of the CSO under the flexible and sensitive baton of Steven Osgood, a conductor who clearly knows how to get the best from singers. Chautauqua Opera will present Falstaff on July 26 and 29 in English translation, and that is what was used for this excerpt, the only music of the evening not sung in German or Italian. It was a tantalizing preview that should sell a few more tickets come this morning.

Jonathan Harris is an unlikely looking bass, tall and lanky and a bit Lincolnian in frame and countenance. He’s probably more of a bass-baritone, but he has the makings of a fine singing actor. Though his hands could be seen shaking a bit, his “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra was alert to the sorrow and rage of the text and movingly sung. The late Norman Treigle must have been like this at Harris’ age.

The Act 2 finale from La traviata was the final round of the contest, and at this point, Verdi seemed clearly ahead on points. Like Muhammad Ali in his prime, the music became light-footed, as Osgood set a brisk tempo for the fateful encounter between Alfredo Germont and his gal. Schweke and Short were the lovers, the former audibly more at home with Violetta’s confusion than with Elsa’s piety, and the latter a credibly lovesick Alfredo in both gesture and ardency of voice. It was a winning portrayal and would have been a fitting end to the evening, but with the entire ensemble on stage, Lesenger couldn’t resist filling the cup one more time with the Brindisi from La traviata, a coup de grace of sorts and an immense crowd-pleaser of a victory lap.

So the decision goes on a technical knockout to the Milano Mauler. (I suspect that Lesenger was in his corner all along.) But the real winners were the audience members, who got a terrific evening in the theater, and the talented kids who sang their hearts out all night long. Only time will tell if any of them have big careers, but on this night at least, they were all stars.

John Chacona is a freelance writer for the Erie Times-News

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