Opera is the last holdout in a world of artificially amplified singing performances. And the Barre Opera House could well be the most acoustically intimate concert hall in Vermont. The combination of these two particulars made for a truly enjoyable evening last Saturday with the Vermont Philharmonic — the resident orchestra of the Barre Opera House — and its guests: four young opera singers who hailed from New York, Florida, Colorado and Stockholm, Sweden.
The program of arias and overtures was entitled “The Expression and Passion of Italian Opera.” That’s a bit like saying “the wetness of water,” but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of why this music never gets old. The arias, chosen by the singers, came mostly from Italy’s bel canto era of the early 19th century, when voice technique reigned supreme.
Only a couple of selections were obvious crowd pleasers. One was “O mio babbino caro” (“Oh, my dear papa”) for soprano from Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi — a much later composition from 1918, but who would miss a chance to perform the soaring melody that became synonymous with Tuscan hillside romance in the film A Room with a View? Another was Gaetano Donizetti’s dolorous tenor aria “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”) from L’Elisir d’Amore. (A young Luciano Pavarotti’s dramatic rendition of it is worth a viewing on YouTube.) Lesser-known choices included a soprano solo and a duet from a rarely performed opera by Pietro Mascagni, L’Amico Fritz.
Tenor Russell Andrade and sopranos Alexandra Büchel, Margaret Higginson and Clarissa Lyons are all recent winners of an orchestral performance award given by the Bel Canto Institute in Florence, Italy. Their appearance was the result of collaboration between the Institute’s founder, Jane Bakken Klaviter, and the Philharmonic’s music director and principal conductor, Louis Kosma. The two met through their work at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where Kosma plays double bass and Bakken Klaviter is an assistant conductor and prompter.
Kosma was pleased to give the singers the opportunity to be backed by an orchestra. “The kids — I call them ‘kids,’ but they’re in their twenties and thirties — they’ve all performed with piano accompaniment,” he said before the concert. “It’s much harder for young singers to find orchestral accompaniment.”
Kosma had the audience’s interests in mind, too: “Vocal music is really loved by people in central Vermont, I’ve noticed.” He has conducted the Philharmonic for the last nine years.
The audience, though somewhat scant and white-haired, was indeed warmly appreciative. It’s hard not to wish a twentysomething in a floor-length strapless red gown the best as she steps in front of a full orchestra and turns to face the audience sans mike. In fact, Lyons’ voice had a pleasingly warm timbre, though she tended to give short shrift to the last note in each phrase. Andrade had a liquid, clear-as-a-bell tenor quality that needed only more support on the high notes. Büchel was the technique maven, showing great control in the rapid runs of “Regnava nel silenzio” (“Silence reigned”) from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. But the highlight was Higginson, a natural communicator whose technique never dominated her ability to convey the emotion of her arias. Her rendition of “Mercè, dilette amiche” (“Thank you, young friends”) from Giuseppe Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani ended the concert on a jubilant note.
Jubilation was, in fact, the order of the evening: The Philharmonic is celebrating its 50th season. A huge white cake was rolled out before the concert and gobbled up by audience members and performers at intermission. And the concert opened with the premiere of a lively overture commissioned by the Philharmonic for its anniversary: Toccata for Orchestra, “City Lights, Country Sun,” by Cuban-born Vermont composer Jorge Martín.
The Vermont Philharmonic is a true community effort: Its 62 members are unpaid and travel from around the state to attend limited practices (for this performance, only five). It was, Kosma admitted, “a big learning experience” for the group to accompany soloists. Yet it managed to turn in fine performances on its four orchestral pieces, including a beautiful decrescendo ending to Puccini’s elegy “Crisantemi” (“Chrysanthemums”).
Fortunately, no such fade-out seems in store for this orchestra, still vibrant at 50.