Palm Beach Opera marks 50 years with a starry and substantial evening

By Lawrence Budmen

Ruth Ann Swenson performing at Palm Beach Opera's 50th anniversary gala concert Friday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Five decades of opera were feted on Friday night as Palm Beach Opera presented a 50th anniversary gala concert at the Kravis Center. Unlike many such celebrations which tend to become elongated parades of isolated arias and duets, general director Daniel Biaggi and artistic director Bruno Aprea opted to present a series of extended scenes and highlights from five operas that were central to the company’s history.

Deftly staged by Dona D. Vaughn, a series of tableaux utilized minimal sets but imaginative lighting and projections by Richard Winkler captured the ambiance of each score. Baritone Sherill Milnes and Biaggi were the genial hosts, relating anecdotes about storied artists and productions from the organization’s half-century between musical excerpts.

Atalla Ayan proved a real discovery. The Brazilian tenorwas an ardent Rodolfo in the Act 1 finale of La Boheme, producing ringing high notes and  blending wonderfully with Ruth Ann Swenson’s Mimi. Surprisingly for this late stage of her career, Swenson projected a large, vibrant sonority, spinning Mi chiamano Mimi with fervent passion. The starlit backdrop enhanced Puccini’s portrait of young love in nineteenth-century Bohemian Paris.

Excerpts from the ballroom scene of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus reflected the requisite champagne fizz, Aprea’s light touch capturing the music’s sparkle. It was wonderful to have a mezzo as Prince Orlofsky, restoring the harmonic palette of Strauss’ ensembles. Lauren McNeese’s bright timbre and comic timing were a total delight. Emily Duncan-Brown, a member of PBO’s young artist program, was a pitch-perfect Adele, an enchanting soubrette with spot-on coloratura agility. Swenson’s Czardas sounded more Italianate than Viennese, yet Daniel Sutin’s darkly colored baritone deftly led the brotherhood ensemble.

Denyce Graves-Montgomery and Brandon Jovanovich were the world-class protagonists in excerpts from  Carmen. The leading Carmen of the 1990s, Graves-Montgomery has recently assayed Verdi’s Azucena and Amneris but she still commands the dusky timbre and combustible theatricality of Bizet’s free living gypsy. Her gutsy Habanera had vocal glamour aplenty. Now moving into heldentenor repertoire, Jovanovich scaled down his stentorian sound for a dulcet flower aria, encompassing the original pianissimo ending in melting tones. In a fiery final scene, Jovanovich sounded heroic, Graves-Montgomery vocally and dramatically fearless.

The high artistic standards that Aprea has consistently maintained over recent seasons were evident throughout the evening with only one major exception. In highlights from the first act of Verdi’s La Traviata, soprano Sarah Joy Miller played Violetta’s concluding scena more like a mad scene than a reflection of the heroine’s conflicted emotions. Miller tended to scoop up to high notes, her upper register harsh and unattractive. Ayan’s refined lyric tones, supple phrasing and engaging stage presence commanded attention in the Libiamo.

The Triumphal Scene from Aida was a grand finale indeed. It was unfortunate that Angela Brown’s opulent soprano was heard only briefly in the final ensemble. She is a leading international interpreter of Verdi’s Ethiopian princess. Graves-Montgomery, Jovanovich and Sutin provided appropriately big-boned vocalism. Aside from some anemic singing from the female contingent, Greg Ritchey’s chorus sounded vociferous. Throughout the program, Aprea offered first class support in the pit, drawing precise and richly colored playing from the orchestra.

The evening also featured tributes to former artistic directors Paul Csonka and Anton Guadagno. Steven Guadagno, the late conductor’s son, led a nicely detailed performance of the Prelude to Act III of Carmen in memory of his father.

Palm Beach Opera repeats the gala program 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center. 561-833-7888;

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Sat Jan 21, 2012
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