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A couple of decades ago, it used to be that you could count the viable opera companies in the US on the fingers of one hand. To those of us from one of the lucky cities that had one, the little truck parked on Hillsborough Street with the sign “National Opera Company” painted in simple black lettering looked pretty out of touch with reality. Not anymore. Opera companies have sprouted like mushrooms all over the country, and the National Opera Company, once a stable of mediocre wannabes – now relocated and renamed The Fletcher Opera Institute at the NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem – has turned into a training ground for real professionals.
Several of the Institute’s advanced graduate students, already veterans of quite a few professional appearances, performed an abbreviated version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni as part of a North Carolina Symphony program under the baton of William Henry Curry. An excellent bit of programming permitted comparative perspectives on the Don by Mozart and Richard Strauss.
With Curry giving a thumbnail plot synopsis from the podium, the ensemble performed enough major selections to render the abridgement more or less coherent. It was a toss-up whether we would have preferred to hear a concert version of the entire opera or the contrast between Mozart and Strauss. The Don Giovanni selections were only minimally staged – and not very convincingly at that. Some costumes and a little more action would have been welcome.
Opera singers of the twenty-first century are expected to do more than just sound good. They must also be believable actors, have excellent diction – whether or not the audience understands the language they are singing in – and look good on stage. For over-all quality of voice, acting and diction, Alphonso Cherry as Leporello was the hands-down winner. Even without semi-staging and the famous “catalogue aria,” Cherry was able to project the combination of terror, fascination and even the bit of envy Leporello feels for his master.
Emily Newton as Donna Anna was in fine voice and acted well in her Act I duets with Don Giovanni and Don Ottavio but was a bit stiff and shrill in her aria “Non mi dir, bell’idol mio” from Act II. And Kristen Yarborough as Donna Elivira – whose character is plenty shrill – portrayed the little pest quite well. Yarborough, however, has an over-endowed vibrato, a vocal feature that can be relatively easily trained out but often isn’t. For fear of sounding stereotypical, we find that Southern sopranos often overdo vibrato, thereby detracting from clarity of tone and pitch. Why, we don’t know. Sara Pardo gave a lovely performance as Zerlina in her short duet with the Don, “La, ci darem la mano.”
Krassen Karagiozov as Don Giovanni has a fine, but small, voice. He just didn’t have the strength of voice or character to contend with the orchestra, especially in the final scene. On the other hand, Jonathan Merritt as the Commendatore has an immensely powerful bass voice but one that still needs some controlling and more diction work. Tenor Scott Mize, singing one of opera’s most thankless roles, despite two arias and participation in a couple of glorious ensembles, was a rather husky Don Ottavio.
The orchestra did well, except in the overture, where, after the outburst of high drama in the first few bars, the energy flagged. In addition, the violins were ragged.
Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, written 100 years later, sees the Don in a very different light Rather than the rake who seduced his way across Europe only to end up dragged into hell, unrepentant, by the statue of the murdered father of one of his victims, Strauss sees him as the searcher after the ultimate in ideal love, who virtually committed suicide by intentionally letting his guard down during a duel with the husband of one of his quarries. Strauss wrote the intensely Romantic and sensual music in 1887, during his courtship of Pauline de Ahna – soon to become his wife. The love theme on the oboe, sensitively performed by Melanie Wilsden, is considered one of the highlights of the Late Romantic period. The main theme, on the horns, depicting the Don, is repeated a number of times, and Curry successfully built up its intensity gradually with each repetition, still leaving room for the final fortissimo before the Don is stabbed.
The concert ended with reverse-order excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, starting with the Introduction to Act III, the Dance of the Apprentices and Procession of the Meistersingers and ending with the Prelude to Act I. This pleasant orchestral potboiler elicited a rousing music to elicit a rousing ovation from the audience, but we still think it should have opened the program.