Pasta and Puccini has again proved a winning combination for celebrating the success of the Annapolis Opera's 35th anniversary season.
The capacity crowds gathered at the Loews Annapolis Hotel on Friday and Sunday to enjoy Italian food before a sumptuous musical menu by musical director Ron Gretz of favorite Puccini and Verdi arias, all delivered by a gifted quartet of young singers. Gretz mixed these ingredients with his inimitable charm, wit and spontaneity.
More than a mere maestro, Gretz dazzles Annapolis Opera audiences with his wizardry for discovering young singers to introduce. On this evening we met two.
Who would believe that a Texas tenor by the name of Cody Austin would spectacularly open the evening, bringing the instant warmth of Italian sun into Loews' dining room?
Austin is one of a rare breed of young, tall and handsome tenors who hardly exist, especially those who can deliver a passionate "O Sole Mio" and later summon the Italian fervor needed to do full justice to the immortal tenor arias created by Verdi and Puccini.
Austin strolled from table to table charming everyone not only with "O Sole Mio" but later as he became Verdi's Duke of Mantua singing a glorious "Questa O Quella" from Rigoletto to a few lucky ladies.
From the small stage Austin joined Colleen Daly's Violetta as Alfredo to sing "Parigi, O Cara" from Verdi's La Traviata and later joined Corinne Winters' Mimi as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme.
Another brilliant singer introduced by Gretz was beautiful soprano Corinne Winters, who is originally from Frederick and has just completed her master's degree in music at Peabody Conservatory. Winters began with a touching "Tu Che Di Gei Sei Cinta" as the ill-fated servant Liu in Puccini's Turandot, where she conveys her selfless love for Calaf.
She proved equally at home with Verdi, where she sang a heart-wrenching version of Violetta's "Addio Del Passato" from La Traviata and finally together with tenor Austin delivered the Act III La Boheme duet that begins with Mimi's "Donde Lieta." It was so compelling that I'd rank this above several fully rehearsed stage productions I've heard. Few in memory could equal this extemporaneous duet in believability, forcing me to recommend that Gretz sign both for a future Annapolis Opera Boheme.
Colleen Daly, a soprano previously introduced to Annapolis Opera audiences, first as grand prize winner of the 2007 Vocal Competition, and later singing the demanding Queen of the Night role in last season's Die Zauberflote, held her own in this company. Daly proved most adept at the art of bel canto, delivering an exquisite "Oh Quante Volte" from Bellini's "I Capuletti e I Montecchi."
Baritone Eric Dubin made his Annapolis Opera debut this evening, singing the "Pagliacci" duet with Corrine Winters and the seldom heard "Questo Amor" from Puccini's Edgar.
Each of the Maryland Hall resident companies holds annual fundraisers around this time of year, but I confess that only Annapolis Opera's Pasta and Puccini consistently appeals to my taste buds while leaving me longing for more of the supreme masters of Italian opera.
This 35th anniversary year also marks the 10th anniversary of Mozart by Candlelight, the 20th of the Vocal Competition, and the 25th of Gretz's association with the company. Most important, with last month's production of Carmen, Annapolis Opera celebrated the first sold-out performances of its annual fully staged opera presentation.
President Leah Solat chose this time to look ahead to the next season, which will offer some well-thought-out changes, including moving the annual Vocal Competition to a date in February other than Super Bowl Sunday.
Solat also announced that next year's opera will be Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana with Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, the popular verismo "Cav/Pag" double bill that should draw a large audience. Other popular events will be broadened so that the former "Mozart by Candlelight" traditional December program will become "Bel Canto by Candlelight" next season to open it to other composers in the beautiful singing bel canto tradition.
It seems appropriate to offer a final toast to Solat at the end of her first season at the helm of Annapolis Opera and to all of her volunteers and the professionals who continue to work to make this organization a major star in the crown of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.