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The Brevard Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Donald Portnoy, performed an entire program of music inspired by the Stage at Brevard College’s Porter Center for the Performing Arts. Guest artists Carol Sparrow, mezzo-soprano, and her husband Randolph Locke, tenor, brought down the house with their powerful and moving renditions of some of opera’s greatest hits. Sparrow made her New York City Opera debut in the title role of Carmen, and has sung with the New York Pops Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera. She enjoys an active career as a concert soloist here and abroad, and has sung in national telecasts of “Live from Lincoln Center” on PBS. Locke has performed with the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Sarasota Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. Both singers teach at Manatee Community College near Sarasota, Florida.
The entire first half of the program was devoted to music from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Bizet’s greatest work was composed between 1873 and 1874, premiering at L’Opéra-Comique in March 1875. Its use of spoken dialogue depicting a tragedy in which murder is committed on stage, and its realistic portrayal of lower-class characters helped destroy the artificial boundaries between opéra comique and opera. The opera was not received well at first; audiences were shocked by the “sensational and obscene” story, and reacted favorably only when the opera was revived in Paris in 1883.
Opening the program was the orchestral Suite No. 1, a series of 6 movements highlighting the opera’s narrative. The brief and ominous-sounding "Prelude" led into the "Aragonnaise," a movement that, unfortunately, started in one tempo and ended in another due to a dragging tambourine accompaniment. The beginning of the third movement "Intermezzo" was beautifully played by solo harp and flute, and later, clarinet. The "Seguidille" and "Les Dragons d’alcala" were disappointingly lack-luster, without a range of nuance or energy that should color these movements. The orchestra rallied, however, for the smartly snappy "March of the Toreadors," the suite’s final movement.
Sparrow then joined the ensemble for the famously seductive "Habañera" from Act I. Sparrow sings with a beautifully clear tone, remarkable precision in diction and rhythm, and a flair for dramatic singing and movement. Locke next took the stage to sing Don José’s "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" (the "Flower Song"), demonstrating his ability to match Sparrow in musicality and dramatic presentation. Together they ended the first half with the duet from Act II, in which Carmen’s and Don José’s violent lover’s quarrel threatens to derail their relationship. Here the two artists proved to be more than a match for the heightened dynamics of the accompanying orchestra, with each singer acting out the story in gestures, including a simulated bite to Don José’s hand and a faint. Wonderful!
After intermission the orchestra performed the Prelude from Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the program’s only nod to the Germans. I think this would have been a more successful concert opener, as the orchestra played its heart out, projecting a passion and musicality equal to that of the singers heard previously and not consistently heard in the opening Carmen Suite. The brass section was glorious — cohesive, full-bodied, and secure.
Locke then returned to the stage for Canio’s wrenching aria "Vesti la Giubba" at the end of Act I from Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Sparrow followed with the beautiful arietta "O Mio Babbino Caro" (My Sweet Little Daddy) from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, a comic opera based on a few lines from Dante’s Inferno. In the arietta, Gianni Schicci’s daughter, Lauretta, begs him to allow her to marry the man of her choice. A piece added to the program was Sparrow’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Claude Michel Schonberg’s Les Misérables, a song much in the news recently due to Susan Boyle’s heart-rending performance of the same on the British TV show Britain’s Got Talent. The program ended with the duet “And This is My Beloved” by Robert Wright and George Forrest from the 1953 musical Kismet, its melody derived from the third movement of Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2. Once again, the pair sang to the rafters with their high-octane high notes, bringing the audience to its feet.