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Baltimore Concert Opera opens season with ardent 'Aida'

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
No elephants, but no turkeys, either, in Baltimore Concert Opera's season-opening "Aida."

In an age when even the major houses have difficulty casting a fully credible "Aida," Baltimore Concert Opera's choice of the epic-sized Verdi work to open its seventh season looked ever so slightly ambitious. 

But early in the performance Sunday afternoon at the Engineers Club, there was a pretty strong indication that things were going to be respectable. That's when tenor Clay Hilley, as Radames, delivered a sensitive account of "Celeste Aida," capped with a much appreciated diminuendo on the high B-flat.

Baltimore Concert Opera has been building on previous collaborative efforts to that provide  the benefit of casts assembled by companies doing fully staged productions. As was the case with last year's rare performance of Faccio's "Amleto," this concert "Aida" featured singers who will soon be performing the role with Opera Southwest.

In the spring, Baltimore Concert Opera will present Verdi's "Falstaff" with a cast that will subsequently be featured in an Opera Delaware production.

It's a sensible arrangement that can give the Baltimore organization the advantage of singers with an extra degree of stage-readiness and immersion in their characters. That was basically the case with this "Aida."

If soprano Shana Blake Hill lacked the tonal weight and touch of spinto that can fill out the title role fully, she sculpted phrases effectively, offering tender nuances in key spots. Kirstin Chavez encountered some iffy intonation and relied too much on raising her right arm to make a dramatic point, but she sang with welcome fire.

Grant Youngblood commanded the room as Amonasro with his beefy tone and vividly detailed phrasing; his intense vocalism in Act 3 was a high point of the afternoon. Matthew Curan (Ramfis) and Justin Hopkins (King of Egypt) sang with a good deal of power and finesse.

The chorus did not always maintain a smooth blend of cohesiveness or articulation, but contributed vibrantly. James Harp provided the sturdy piano accompaniment. (It's impossible not to miss an orchestra when an opera is performed, with or without staging, but, as the video clip I attached here reiterates, a keyboard can certainly get the job done when it's played well.)

Conductor Anthony Barrese could have encouraged more subtlety of dynamics from the performers (the visceral fortissimos sure were fun, though). Still, his approach to the score had a firm pulse and a good deal of lyrical elegance.

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