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Review: San Diego Opera Again Proves Itself Worthy of 'Must-See' Status

San Diego Opera has done it again. Last night's 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert, featuring a display of operatic and symphonic talent rarely seen and heard on one stage, provided another joyful musical experience for performers and audience alike. In conjunction with the San Diego Symphony, which generously donated their usual concert venue for SDO's benefit, the cooperative effort was a Grand Succès: vocally, dramatically and musically.

It was an evening of celebratory firsts for SDO: the anniversary of their first 50 years in existence, their first concert performed together with SDS on the stage of Copley Symphony Hall, and the final offering of their first season as a reborn company.

The array of seven singing soloists sparkled so brightly with their vocal expertise and stage presence, that at times the hall seemed to vibrate from the sheer force of their cumulative talents. All of the numbers performed were hugely difficult, and were executed with skill and panache.

Perhaps the most luminous star of all was Charles Prestinari's chorus. Always a class act, they seem to outdo themselves with each successive production. This time, with a docket of noteworthy numbers one after another, they knocked the audience's shoes right off their feet. Starting with the difficult first high note the tenors sang in the opening (Bravi, tenors!) of the "Entrance of the Guests" from Wagner's Tannhauser, the ensemble sang as one instrument, presenting difficult choruses from Puccini's Tosca and Verdi's Nabucco and Aida with vocal consistency and power. Even the extremely quick tempi of conductor Karen Kamensek did not daunt these expert choral singers from producing a sound that was both forceful and beautifully rounded.

As to the soloists, theirs was a veritable constellation of stunning arias, duets and ensembles. American soprano Lise Lindstrom had the most strenuous job, with four major arias to perform: Dich, teure Halle from Tannhauser, In questa Reggia from Puccini's Turandot, Es gibt ein Reich from Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, and Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Any one of these would have provided effective proof of Lindstrom's vocal proficiency; all four of them together comprised an agenda that would test the mettle of any soprano, and few would attempt such a demanding list. Lindstrom moved from one aria to another with apparent ease, showing her voice to its fullest capabilities in the Strauss.

From the moment he sang his first exquisite notes of his SDO debut in Bizet's duet, Au fond du Temple Saint from Les Pêcheurs de Perles, René Barbera's glorious tenor shimmered its way through the atmosphere of the hall and into the audience's hearts. His vocal beauty and ease and phenomenally consistent technique, reminiscent of the vocal assurance and comic flair of Pavarotti and the technical prowess and golden tones of Flórez, mesmerized listeners, whether in the sensuous Bizet or the always-challenging Ah! Mes amis... of Donizetti. In the latter, the celebrated nine High C's were a lock: effortless, formidable but not overwhelming. He made sure to sing the two verses on both stage right and left, providing equal listening opportunity to the entire house, and gave the impression that a tenth High C would present no problem whatsoever. One hopes not to have to wait too long to hear him in a full role at SDO.

Stephen Powell always nails whatever musical challenge he attempts. An imposing Tonio in SDO's Pagliacci last season (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Reviews-San-Diego-Operas-PAGLIACCI-Stands-On-Its-Own-20140127), Powell delivered a stunning performance as Baron Scarpia in the Te Deum from Tosca, and provided perfect balance to Barbera in the Bizet duet, with a gorgeous sound and potent presence that equaled Barbera's in every way. In this they were perfectly matched vocally and dramatically, as they also were comically in the duet, All' idea dí quel metallo, from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Soprano Emily Magee gave a stunning first impression in her rendering of Tosca's signature aria Vissi d'arte. The unusual timbre and range of her powerful, sensuous voice was a perfect fit vocally and dramatically for the tragic 19th century diva, and even more so in the encore final ensemble (see last paragraph).

Equally lush was Marianne Cornetti's voice in the mezzo-soprano tour de force aria from Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila, presented to its best advantage in its lower and middle range. She showed great dramatic flair in the duet from Verdi's Don Carlo, with soprano Erica Austin, who displayed a youthful, sparkling and captivating voice that one would very much like to hear more of in the future.

Bass Reinhard Hagen, who played the Commendatore in the company's recent Don Giovanni, is a familiar and much-admired presence at SDO. His passionate rendering of the aria Lyubvi fse vozrastï pokornï from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin gave the audience a welcome demonstration of his impressively deep low notes, rendered capably and with profound feeling.

Another SDO favorite, bass-baritone Scott Sikon, provided listeners the pleasurable opportunity to hear him more extensively than usual in the ever popular Non più andrai from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro.

Karen Kamensek conducted with her usual command and authority, showing her capabilities especially effectively in the French repertoire.

The evening ended not only in Gloria all'Egitto ad Iside but also in triumph for San Diego Opera. As an added symbol of the company's determination and grit, the audience was regaled with an encore of the final ensemble from Bernstein's Candide, which aptly pointed out SDO's hopes, dreams, and thus-far accomplishments with its exhortations to "Build our house and chop our wood" and "Make our garden grow." With the impending and much anticipated arrival of new General Director David Bennett (/bwwopera/article/BWW-Interview-New-SD-Opera-General-Director-Cannot-Curb-His-Enthusiasm-20150407) in mid-June, such phrases symbolize the renewed hope and anticipatory joy of a company on the threshold of great accomplishments.

Photo Credit: San Diego Opera

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