Saturday night the Los Angeles Opera threw itself a party.
Ten years ago a young artists program was formed by a group of local philanthropists to further studies for young singers within the company. The fledgling undertaking started in the late 80’s and was underwritten by Flora Thornton. Her tradition carried on now by the foundation named for Richard Colburn, who’s performing arts school downtown bears his name, and Eugene and Mindy Stein.
There’s also a fellowship subsidized by Lenore and Richard Wayne Young that augments the program. When you think that Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country, has only had an opera company for 30 years the generosity of these people I’ve named can’t be underestimated.
Unfortunately not everyone invited was able to attend. Baritone Nikolas Testè, still suffering under the malady that caused the cancellation of his first two performances of Hoffmann’s villains, and his wife Diana Damrau decided best to hang back since they both had a matinee Sunday. They were missed but an intriguing new talent made her debut with the company in their place.
Luckily we had the grand seigneur of L.A. Opera Placido Domingo and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky to lend a little wattage to the proceedings. Though considering the level of talent and professionalism on stage at the Dorothy Chandler last night they were honestly just frosting.
Taking the stage looking like the proverbial movie star Ms. Radvanovsky got things off to a opulent start with the Bolero from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani. Her blonde hair falling to her shoulders she wore a form fitting, midnight blue, mermaid cut gown in satin with black bugle beads at the decolletage. While her performance wouldn’t have won any speed records it was notable for its meticulous observance of every note-accent and trill Verdi wrote, plus two astonishing displays of breath control where she bridged the fast and slow sections of the aria. Brava Diva!
Next we got the famous Act IV quartet from Rigoletto. Baritone Kihun Yoon as Verdi’s Jester with soprano Hyesang Park as his ill-fated daughter were joined by mezzo Renée Rapier as Maddalena and tenor Joshua Guerrero as the Duke. It went like clockwork with excellent contributions from all four singers. Ms. Park was especially distinguished and did some lovely messa di voce effects in the upper part of her crystalline soprano.
Soprano Liv Redpath and baritone Theo Hoffman followed with an enthusiastic rendition of the act I duet between Norina and Dr. Malatesta from Don Pasquale. They both gave spirited performances with Ms. Redpath proving especially canny and displaying an attractive bloom on a voice that seemed sizeable for the role.
A vivacious Cenerentola Act I finale had Ms. Rapier as its centerpiece and was followed by bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee in the aria ‘La lluvia ha resado’ from Ruperto Chapi’s zarzuela La Tempestad. Premiered in 1882 its writing and orchestration sound fully part of the verismo tradition. Mr. Brownlee, whose initial physical appearance is an unassuming one, has never impressed me more than on this occasion. His unstintingly passionate and full voiced reading of this study in anger and revenge upped the excitement level considerably. To say nothing of the volume. It’s rare when you hear a baritone who can really cut through an orchestra like this and Mr. Brownlee has this gift in spades.
Local favorite and coloratura in excelsis So Young Park gave us her party piece as the Queen of the Night from Act I of The Magic Flute. The last time I saw Ms. Park sing this showstopper she was strapped to a plinth hanging off a wall three stories above the stage wearing an insect head. Naturally I had no doubt she’d triumph with her feet planted firmly on the stage. She did not disappoint. Her appropriately intense German matched her dramatic reading which was surprisingly physical. Still her voice was the glory of the performance. She’s a mistress of accuracy and clarity in perhaps the most daunting of soprano entrance arias. Rapid-fire, machine gun, coloratura and high F in alt dispatched with a fierce will and a fiery temperament.
Maestro Domingo, who had been leading the concert, relinquished the baton to Grant Gershon for the Mozart so he could prepare to close out the first half. He appeared with Ms. Radvanovsky and they gave us the recognition duet from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. I have to say that after having only seen and heard Ms. Radvanovsky in a series of very forceful female characters it was amazing to see her easy transition to the lovelorn and orphaned Amelia.
Her performance was full of touching detail and she showed full involvement in portraying the character through the music and the text. She certainly worked her magic on Domingo because he was moved to real tears at the climax of the duet. This piece is an easy fit for his current bari-tenor and he’s certainly had plenty of experience in the role by now. They embraced and shared the final ascent to that piano F over those heart rending descending arpeggios on the harp. Audience hysteria followed shortly on.
Mr. Guerrero and Mr. Domingo returned after the interval and made short work of the Pearl Fishers duet. Mr. Guerrero is an alumnus of the young artists program here and has been featured in a number of roles by the company. It’s a very fine voice with a strong core and an effortless way in the upper middle. If his phrasing and presence seems a tad square at times his generally ardent delivery compensates in all the best ways.
Brenton Ryan followed with the ‘Song of the Worm’ from Ghosts of Versailles which is composer John Corigliano’s gift to all character tenors. Its wide range and effects showed Mr. Ryan’s skills well as he asserted a cool malevolence.
Mr. Domingo regained the podium to accompany Ms. Radvanovsky in ‘Senza mamma’ from Puccini’s three-hanky Suor Angelica in which she had a great success here in 2012. Her reading was supremely tender with a passionate undercurrent. She landed the tricky final note on a stunning pianissimo that she supported for an impossible length of time to general audience rapture.
We then had Summer Hassan as an impossibly bubbly Susanna in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro to the Countess of Lauren Michelle who was making her L.A. Opera debut in the concert. She is a stunningly attractive woman with high cheekbones, tall, and with a coffee cream complexion. She wore a heavy silk brocaded gown in metalic silver and blue and easily assumes the bearing of nobility. They gave a charming reading of this enchanting piece that may have lacked just the very last bit of polish.
Ms. Michelle returned later in the program for the ‘mirror aria’ from Massenet’s Thais. At first hearing this seemed a perfect fit for her talents. Yet the voice remains too cool in the upper extension and doesn’t blossom like you’d want on the big phrases. Sadly her French was something less than correct and nothing approaching idiomatic enough for this aria’s rich poetry. Nonetheless a talent to keep an eye out for.
Mr. Guerrero and Hyesang Park returned for the Act I duet from Lucia di Lammermoor and the Korean soprano brought an intensity of devotion to the duet that was most welcome. Ms. Park recently had a success at the Juilliard School as Bellini’s Amina and one waits eagerly to see what will come next from this young woman. From the strength of her voice and easy ornamentation I hear a Violetta in the not too distant future. She had breath control to spare and moved and acted with a real glamour that’s rare.
Domingo at the pit coaxed some marvellous playing from the L.A. Opera Orchestra players here and, in a setting like this, you see how dedicated he is to his singers. The pizzicato accompaniment from the strings and their quick dynamic adjustments within the phrases were most impressive.
I wouldn’t be lying if I said the highlight of the evening for many was Mr. Yoon and Mr. Brownlee, in what appeared to be a very congenial but competitive fashion, blowing a hole clean through ‘Suoni la tromba’ the duet for baritone and bass from Bellini’s I Puritani. Anything you can sing I can sing louder….and they did. You just don’t hear low male voices this big and secure everyday and they both appeared to relish the opportunity to show off: bull canto at its best. They were rewarded generously by a grateful audience as was Principal Trumpet Rob Frear for his excellent work.
The rest of the evening was sheer fun. It started with Ms. Radvanovsky storming on with Mr. Domingo in hot pursuit. She feigning anger over some slight and giving him a lot of ‘talk to the hand’ to hilarious effect. Domingo being deep down the true Spanish jamón he is played to the balcony shamelessly until Franz Lehar’s ubiquitous theme from The Merry Widow started playing and then there was some tender singing and waltzing.
Hyesang Park then tottered on with a nearly full champagne flute for Angelita’s waltz from Caballero’s Chateau Margaux. Nothing from her previous appearances would have led me to believe she would be such a hilariously skilled and physically adept comedienne. As she sang of her uneasiness and fought her queeziness she consistently dipped and swayed yet never spilled a drop. She was charm itself and displayed an enormous amount of skill and confidence.
Finally all joined in at the finale for Johann Strauss II Champagne Song from the Act II FInale of Fledermaus. A piece that Ms. Radvanovsky was obviously unfamiliar with since she came on with a card with the lyrics written on it. She may not know the words but, being the conscientious professional that she is, she was certainly able to find every high note that Strauss wrote into the piece. Bravi Tutti!
Photo: Art Streibner