New York City Opera & Mid-Atlantic Symphony Starry Night Classics Review

A Reminder That Live Music is Possible in The Time of COVID

By Francisco Salazar

On August 15, the New York City Opera and Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra teamed up for what was billed as the first live operatic experience in the United States since the lockdown due to COVID-19.

The concert, which was held at the Freeman Stage, brought together a small chamber ensemble and four singers who have performed at the New York City Opera to great acclaim. Michael Capasso, General Director of the NYCO hosted the event.

But it was not all smooth sailing, which considering all that 2020 has brought, was expected.

Before a note was played, members of the New York City Opera Orchestra picketing the event, voicing their displeasure at the use of the name “New York City Opera” in the program. In a leaflet they distributed, the members stated “Your audience may be hearing singers who have appeared with the New York City Opera, but since the Opera’s orchestra is not involved in this performance, we believe calling this organization the New York City Opera is extremely misleading, deceptive, and untrue.”

Meanwhile, a light fixture fell on the stage before the start of the concert. The light incident delayed the concert for a half-hour but with the weather holding up and the audience enthusiastic to hear live music, the show went on for an evening of good energy and classic works.

The Ensemble

Under the direction of Julien Benichou, the chamber ensemble of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony, which accompanied soloists throughout the evening was at its best in which it got the center stage. The Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana,” was lush and romantic, while the Meditation from “Thais,” as interpreted by violinist Kurt Nikkanen, was given intensity and drive. Nikkanen played with a gleaming tone that connected each line beautifully and his rendition of the last movement of Vivaldi’s “Summer” was played with vivacity and virtuoso flair.

In the vocal pieces, the ensemble was strongest during “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” Mefistofele’s Serenade from “Faust,” the Habanera from “Carmen,” and the Quartet from “Rigoletto,” which all obtained an intimacy that could sometimes be lost by some of the heaviness in larger orchestras.

That said, the ensemble sounded thin and underpowered in pieces by Puccini, Cilea, and Gounod. The finale of Act one to “La Bohème” which has lush orchestral moments, sounded forced and lacked the momentum in Puccini’s romanticism. The “Acerba Volutta” from “Adriana Lecourevur,” which begins with vivacity, urgency, and command and then evolves into a passionate outburst, lacked that urgency and dragged a bit.

But, one cannot completely fault the orchestra as it was reduced to 12 players with two violins, one cello, one violist, a pianist, a bass player and a couple of winds and brass and this repertoire, no matter how you adapt it, does not fit into chamber music.

Four Soloists

The concert was headlined by Kevin Short, Michael Butler, Lisa Chavez, and Kristin Sampson, all of which performed several times throughout the evening.

But the evening belonged without a doubt to Butler, a young 21-year-old tenor. Butler possesses a bright lyric tenor that rings throughout his range. His middle voice is plush and resonant and his high notes are vibrant even if they sometimes sound a bit pushed and thinned.

And on this night it was obvious Butler was pushed to his current limit singing a wide range of repertoire from “Faust,” “Rigoletto,” “La Boheme” and “L’Elisir d’Amore.” And while all these roles are billed as Lyric parts, they are parts most lyric tenors grow into. That being said Butler gave a beautifully lyrical “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” caressing each phrase with warmth.

His coloratura work was also fluid and accurate. His “Che Gelida Manina” was full of passion and bright tone even if his climatic High C on “La Speranza” sounded a bit forced and the brightness of his voice paled.

In the “Rigoletto” quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” Butler sang with a seductive quality biting into the text and filling it with a smoky brightness in his middle register. However, his high notes seemed a bit compromised. That being said, with the right repertoire, Butler has a future ahead of him and is a singer to look out for in the coming years.

Lisa Chavez also had a notable evening, commanding the stage at every moment she was on it. Her first selection “Acerba Volutta” was sung with command and a gutsy chest voice. Chavez has a voice with power and resonance and she used all those qualities to hold the audience’s attention in Cilea’s music. The opening lines were given an imposing character that was then contrasted with the Princess de Bouillon’s more passionate outcries. Chavez sang the “O vagabonda stella d’Oriente” section with a more connected and legato line that crescendoed to its passionate climax.

She contrasted the passionate Cilea, in her “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” as she sang with an intimate timbre connecting and holding out phrases with a gorgeous pianissimo sound. In many ways, there was a virtuoso quality to her singing demonstrating the even tones in her sultry mezzo. Her “Habanera” was yet another demonstration of Chavez’s artistry as she played to the audience dancing on stage while seductively dispatching Bizet’s famous aria with flexibility and gusto.

It is notable that Chavez also made herself present in the “Rigoletto” Quartet with her sensual phrasing and attention to the text; she was equally memorable in the final “O Sole Mio” quartet, which showcased her powerful high register.

Kevin Short performed two solo pieces during the night. He sang his signature “Ol’ Man River” from “Showboat” with a booming bass-baritone and dispatched Mefistofele’s Serenade “Vous, qui faites l’endormie” with a devilish and alluring tone. Short particularly engaged the audience with his “Haha” starting out with an uproarious laugh before going to a softer and insidious version, which gave the sense of a snarl. Short also sang in the “Rigoletto” quartet and the “O Sole Mio.”

The final soloist of the night was soprano Kristin Sampson, who has made her name in recent years singing such dramatic parts as Tosca and Minnie “La Fanciulla del West.” However, on this night Sampson opted to perform from the lyric repertoire. It isn’t the first or last time that a dramatic soprano chooses to do so but for Sampson, her excursions into Mimì, Liu, Gilda or Margueritte were not as exciting as her other interpretations in the heavier repertory. Sampson lacked bloom and brightness, her voice was steely, harsh and her upper register was strained. It was quite disappointing and based on her other repertory, it just did not seem like the best fit. That said, she was very dramatically invested in her characters and her diction was top notch.

Overall this was an evening that reminded audiences of the possibilities of live performance in the time of COVID. What these musical artists and the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra did is a testament that live music can go on and that we must adapt to our new normal.


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