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Weekend update: Handel Choir, Wash. Concert Opera

Just a quick entry to mention the vocal pleasures of the weekend, starting Saturday night with the Handel Choir of Baltimore. Melinda O'Neal has steadily and rapidly honed this formerly uneven ensemble into quite a potent chorus. The Handel and Bach program at First English Lutheran found the singers maintaining solid intonation, clarity of articulation and sensitivity to the shape of phrases. There was a telling sign early on of how much O'Neal has done for the group -- the firm, colorful way individual voices started off the contrapuntal flurry of the Alleluia in Handel's Coronation Anthem, "The King shall rejoice." That was the kind of detail that would not have been so beautifully realized in the pre-O'Neal days that I experienced. Two Bach cantatas received dynamic performances from the choristers, who were backed stylishly by a period instrument orchestra (occasional rough patches caused minimal damage). Three fine soloists did a good deal of elegant work: Jay White (countertenor), Robert Petillo (tenor) and Phillip Collister (bass). It was a thoughtfully constructed, entertaining program delivered with an informed sense of historic style.

On Sunday night at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, Washington Concert Opera explored one of the many Donizetti works that are largely ignored today, Maria Padilla. The experience seemed all the more worthwhile given Washington National Opera's current production of another neglected gem, Lucrezia Borgia. There are amazing things in Maria Padilla, including a soprano/mezzo duet that can stand comparison with the one in Bellini's Norma and some exceptional instrumental coloring. The story is no better or worse than hundreds of other operas -- a Spanish king secretly marries a woman who gets a little annoyed to find out late that he's about to marry a French princess. For almost all of its length, the music provides abundant interest, enough to bring the drama alive even without sets or costumes. At least it did so here, with an enthusiastic cast and the fiery conducting of Antony Walker (I wish he had slowed down once in a while, but his driving approach was hard to resist). The cast included Leah Partridge in the title role; Jennifer Rivera as Maria's sister, Ines (a standout performance); Mark S. Doss as Don Pedro; Justin Lavender as Maria's father, Don Ruiz. Chorus and orchestra got through more on enthusiasm than finesse or tonal fullness. All in all, a memorable night with an unjustly forgotten opera.

PHOTO OF MELINDA O'NEAL COURTESY OF HANDEL CHOIR

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