Opera Italiana is in the Air 2021 Review: Rebirth
Jennifer Rowley, Stephen Costello & Gabreilla Reyes Lead New York Open Air ConcertBy Francisco Salazar
On June 28, Opera Italiana presented its annual concert at the Naumburg Bandshell, Central Park. This year was particularly special given it was the first live performance for the organization in over a year following the pandemic. As such, the concert was appropriately named “Rebirth” and paid homage to Enrico Caruso, who is celebrating his centennial this year.
Additionally, this was a special event for audiences as it was one of the first live operatic performances in New York in over a year and that was all the more apparent with the energy delivered by audience members as they bravoed throughout the evening and clapped along to the William Tell Overture and to the Brindisi from “La Traviata.” Cameras were rolling for a live stream and there was even a step and repeat for picture opportunities.
A Diva With Range
But most importantly, there was great music produced by three operatic superstars.
Soprano Jennifer Rowley brought her plush and voice to three arias. She opened the concert with “Tacea la Notte Placida” from “Il Trovatore” and sang with an even tone that soared into her higher register. There was also a great resonance in her chest voice particularly in her opening bars and in the second verse of the aria. Her cabaletta “Di tale amor” displayed the soprano’s coloratura abilities singing the roulades with aplomb and security.
But it was the second aria “Vissi d’arte” that was the standout. Rowley is a well-known interpreter of “Tosca” and it showed in her mastery of this aria. Her diction was clear and her phrasing was fluid. Her chest voice flowed beautifully into her middle voice and the climactic moment was topped with a glistening high B flat. Where this aria is supposed to be Tosca’s plea, here Rowley’s voice had a brighter quality that gave the aria some hope. She was rewarded with bravos and one hopes that New York audiences will get a chance to see her complete interpretation of the role soon.
Rowley capped off the evening with the final scene from Act one of “La Bohème.” It was the first time Rowley was singing “Mi Chiamano Mimi” and “O Soave Fanciulla” but Rowley’s creamy timbre is perfect for Puccini’s romanticism. For her Mimì, the soprano lightened her sound to evoke the lyrical lines of the role and even during the climactic “Ma quando vien lo sgelo,” she sang with tender voice, withholding some of that spinto sound that audiences are accustomed to hearing from her. Rowley imbued the final recitative lines “Altro di me non le saprei narrare” with a soft voice but with clear diction that expressed Mimì’s timidity. It wasn’t until “O Soave Fanciulla” where the soprano unleashed the full potency in her voice, delivering her lines with an ecstatic lyrical quality. That was followed by a coquettish quality to “No, per pietà!” Adding to this was her commitment to connecting with tenor Stephen Costello throughout, her loving smiles adding intimacy to the performance. The final C (from both singers) rang out powerfully, even though the two faced away from the microphone, an astonishing feat in the middle of the open-air.
Gabriella Reyes also sang three pieces. She began the evening alongside Costello in the second duet from “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Here Reyes had fun with Costello’s interpretation of Nemorino, playing up a conflicted Adina who was both strong-willed but jealous at being ignored. The voice fit the long legato lines that Donizetti wrote to perfection. Reyes’ tone was imposing and domineering throughout the opening section before lightening for the coloratura passages in the second section. Not only did she dispatch solid and clean roulades but her diction was crystal clear and one could sense the playfulness and fun she was having during this duet. It didn’t hurt that Costello was animated throughout as he swayed with his microphone and played along with the phrasing (most notably during his “La La La” where he started with a forte sound and decrescendoed to a falsetto tone). The two also managed to create a playful tension through their back and forth looks, adding to the fun. Costello and Reyes’ voices also matched beautifully with their cadenza lining up and their dynamics in synch.
For the second piece of the evening, Reyes chose “O Mio Babbino Caro.” Here the soprano displayed her lush legato singing, taking her time with the line.
Her final piece “Quando m’en vo'” was all about the flirtatious quality of her tone as she lightened the voice in certain portions and then simply let out the sultry sound she possesses. One also has to applaud the emphasis on diction as she relished emphasizing such words as “struggi” and “rifuggi.” Reyes held out the climactic high B flat on “Senti” for an extra beat, giving the aria extra virtuosic flare.
Always in Character
The final soloist of the evening was Stephen Costello. As noted he began with “Esulti pur la barbara” alongside Reyes and acted out the role of Nemorino using a water bottle in place of the wine that the character is supposed to drink. During the first part of the duet, he sang the lines “la la la” while dancing and holding on to his microphone, completely in character. He looked stupefied as he drank the water bottle and then confident as he danced and eyed his stage partner. His voice also took on confidence as he sang the “La La La” portion and then gave a warm quality to the first part of “Esulti pur la barbara.” He shaped the phrases with tenderness and a round timbre. His high notes sometimes sounded a little unsteady but one could not fault him as he was completely invested in his character.
His second selection was “Core ‘ngrato” which Costello sang with a bright and ardent tone pulling all the emotional strings of Neapolitan song. His final high note was virtuosic and showstopping.
During the “Bohème” portion of the concert, Costello sang “Che Gelida Manina” with power and passion. His lower-middle register sometimes felt a bit grainy but it was likely due to his microphone being too close to his voice. That said, his phrasing was filled with beautiful legato lines even if sometimes there were a number of accented notes that seemed out of place. The climactic “poiché, poiché vha preso stanza la speranza!” was in perfect pitch and the high C pierced through the park filling the audience with excitement. In the “O Soave Faniculla” his voice sometimes overpowered Rowley’s but by the end the duet the two found a balance.
The orchestra, which featured musicians of the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, was conducted by Alvise Casellati. The solo pieces included the Triumphal March from “Aida” (which sounded like fanfare without a chorus) and the “Nabucco” overture. The orchestra really shined in the “William Tell” Overture with its different colors and striking orchestral interludes. The final portion of the piece also gave a boost of energy to the audience which clapped and sang along to the famed section.
Overall this was a fun evening that made audiences appreciate the power of opera. One hopes that as life gets back to normal, opera companies will consider more of these outdoor concerts as they reach not only opera lovers but new audiences.