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Baltimore Concert Opera opens fifth season with spirited 'L'elisir'

A lot has happened, operatically, in Baltimore during the past few years.

The city lost its proud Baltimore Opera Company after more than five decades, then gained a sort of second cousin in the form of Lyric Opera Baltimore. Opera Vivente folded its tent after more than a dozen years. Baltimore Opera Theatre came and went in what seemed like a flash.

Amid these and other changes, Baltimore Concert Opera, founded by former Baltimore Opera singers, has managed to hang on and maintain a steady course. The organization, which just opened its fifth season, presents unstaged operas in the relatively intimate ballroom of the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion (Engineer's Club), with only piano accompaniment.

An opera given in concert form without an orchestra is far more limiting than one without costumes or sets. But, at its best, this company is able to make the pared-down experience quite satisfying when assembling a cast that can make the music come alive. A good example came Sunday afternoon with a performance of Donizetti's endearing "L'elisir d'amore." 

Lately, Baltimore Concert Opera has been getting a useful benefit from founder Brendan Cooke's dual duties these days. In addition to serving as artistic director of the Baltimore ensemble, he recently became general director of Opera Delaware. Now, singers engaged for one can also perform for the other.

Opera Delaware will present a staged version of "L'elisir" next week; cast and conductor, in effect, got the advantage of having a couple extra run-throughs of the piece in Baltimore.

The singers had the score in their heads (no music stands for this performance, as has often been the case). And, having been through some of the staging rehearsals for Wilmington, the cast easily tossed in a lot of acting (and inter-acting) here. The performance was anything but a mere concert. 

I was especially interested to hear William Davenport again. The tenor showed unusual promise when he was a Peabody Conservatory student not that long ago. Judging by the confidence he demonstrated in his portrayal of lovesick Nemorino in "L'elisir," it seems that Davenport is settling into the profession nicely.

In terms of styling, the singer is a natural, attentive to text and the shape of phrases; "Una furtiva lagrima" was elegantly molded. I was a little disappointed, however, in Davenport's tone. I often wanted to hear more warmth and evenness to complement fully the admirable musicality. Still, this guy clearly has something.

So does Trevor Scheunemann, whose hearty baritone and delectably colorful phrasing fleshed out the role of the pompous Belcore. A classy performance all around.

Sharin Apostolou encountered some technical inconsistencies, but was an engaging Adina. Stephen Eisenhard compensated for upper-register thinness with lots of vitality as Dulcamara. James Harp was the proficient pianist, Jerome Shannon the straightforward conductor.     

Sunday's performance was dedicated to the memory of singer/voice teacher Philip Frohnmayer, who died Friday in New Orleans, where he was a professor at Loyola University. Among the many singers mentored by Mr. Frohnmayer was Brendan Cooke, who spoke affectingly to the audience about the man and his inspiring influence.


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