Operatic music with narration

The Baltimore Sun

The Concert Artists of Baltimore, the region's only professional orchestral/choral ensemble, seems to have hit upon a successful programming formula: chunks of popular music threaded together by lightly seasoned narration.

That approach generated a sold-out season-opener in October that explored Beethoven's life and output. Another capacity crowd gathered Saturday night at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills for a generous operatic potpourri.

A dozen operas were touched upon, all but one of them - Handel's Alcina - familiar, at least by title, to the most casual music-lovers. Fortunately, that familiarity did not limit the freshness of the evening. Music director Edward Polochick was, as usual, operating on overdrive, with an energy and commitment that do not allow for even a hint of pedestrian phrasing.

Roger Brunyate, director of opera programs at the Peabody Institute, served as the amiable host, offering pithy scene-settings.

The soloists, all members of the chorus, were not equally suited to the demands of the material, but there were impressive standouts. Christine Kavanagh's rich and expressive soprano got to the heart of Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Patricia Caya jumped into the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen with spirit, assurance and a juicy mezzo.

That same opera also provided a showcase for Daniel Seigel, who sang the heck out of the "Toreador Song" in excellent French and with what few baritones bother trying to achieve in this aria - nuance. It was so refreshing to hear something besides the usual one-volume, one-mood delivery of that well-worn piece.

It was also fun to hear those and other excerpts presented not as isolated solos, but in context, complete with choral interjections.

Speaking of context, the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin was given in its original form, as a swirling party scene, full of catty observations by guests and bits of dialogue from the opera's principal characters. Polochick heated up both vocal and orchestral forces to compelling effect in that selection, as he did in a briskly paced Anvil Chorus from Verdi's Il Trovatore and a theatrically vivid account of the grand Easter Hymn from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.

On the other hand, the Humming Chorus from Puccini's Madama Butterfly got off to a messy start and never quite recovered. A scene from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro also failed to get off the ground, and the Watch Duet from Strauss' Die Fledermaus didn't quite hit the spot, either.

But the misfires were few in an evening that celebrated the wealth of attractions in opera, from a dizzying dash through the overture to Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila (albeit with an awfully assertive timpanist) to a beautifully shaped "Meditation" from Massenet's Thais, featuring the eloquent solo work of concertmaster Jose Miguel Cueto.

Prominent percussionist

Colin Currie, the superb Scottish-born percussionist, brings an arsenal of instruments and a flair for communicating with them to the Baltimore Museum of Art this weekend. His recital, presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series, will include works that complement the BMA's African Spirit Series.

The recital is at 3 p.m. Saturday (lecture at 2 p.m.) at the BMA, 10 Art Museum Drive. Admission is free, but tickets are required. Call 410-516-7164.


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