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March 26, 2009

Baltimore Concert Opera debuts with 'Don Giovanni' and an overflow crowd

Brendan CookeBaltimore Concert Opera, founded by baritone Brendan Cooke (left) in the wake of the Baltimore Opera Company's collapse, made its debut Wednesday night at the Engineer's Club (Garrett-Jacobs Mansion) before an overflow, appreciative crowd, establishing a foothold in the local cultural landscape. For its inaugural presentation, the ensemble chose Mozart's venerable Don Giovanni and assembled a lively, if uneven, cast to sing it to piano accompaniment.

Opera without sets, costumes and orchestra is obviously no substitute for full-sized productions, the sort that graced the Lyric for decades, but there's a lot of potential in the concert format, especially when an orchestra is used. I've known some performances in this format to deliver even more chills and thrills than the fully staged variety. And the new organization is already dreaming about expanding to include full orchestra and chorus, which could put it on par with the fine Washington Concert Opera. (The Baltimore group will want to study the financial challenges faced over the years by that D.C. one.) 

Before the second act on Thursday, Steven White, a conductor whose eloquent work was an asset to several recent productions by the Baltimore Opera, gave a pitch to the audience, especially "those who invested emotionally and perhaps financially" in that now-in-liquidation company, asking people ...

to consider supporting the new kid on the operatic block. He outlined a scenario that would see Baltimore Concert Opera build quickly to a "world-class" level. He suggested that one un-staged performance with orchestra and chorus at the Lyric could be produced for about $150,000, and a season that offered two Lyric presentations and some small-scale performances at the Engineers Club for "under half a million dollars." White signaled his willingness to be involved in such an enterprise, and his presence would certainly be good for Baltimore Concert Opera's cred.

Michael MayesAll of this, of course, is pure conjecture, but the new organization clearly wanted folks to think about the future on Thursday, even as they were experiencing the present. In addition to White's remarks, company founder Brendan Cooke also brought up the subject of what next, during his own address to the audience. 

Meanwhile, there's the matter of Don Giovanni to evaluate. On the vocal front, the strengths heavily favored the male side of things. In the title role, baritone Michael Mayes (right) proved impressive, with a mellow, evenly produced timbre and colorful phrasing. He sang the Serenade, in particular, with admirable nuance. Jason Hardy, as Leporello, was another plus. Except for a tightening at the upper end of his range, the bass sang with a solid, warm tone and put a very engaging spin on his lines.

As Don Ottavio, Steven Sanders made up for a limited tonal palette with consistently stylish, technically poised singing, nowhere more so than in his vibrant delivery of Il mio tesoro. Troy Clark's light baritone didn't fill out Masetto's music fully, but he got into the spirit of things delightfully. Although Thom King came up short in terms of the vocal weight needed to make the Commendatore truly imposing, he sang in his usual, thoughtful manner. The men, especially Mayes, Hardy and Clark, seemed to be straining at the leash, eager to do some real acting, rather than just stand and sing behind the row of music stands neatly lined up on the small stage of the ballroom. They managed to get in some dynamic theatrical flourishes along the way.

Francesca Mondanaro, as Donna Anna, was an interesting case. The soprano revealed a fruity low register capable of considerable power, and she also spun some lovely, soft high notes. Any pressure in the upper register, though, yielded harsh, poorly centered results. The voice clearly has lots of potential, but, judging by Thursday's results, could use some fine-tuning. Kyle Engler, too, sounded in need of vocal maintenance, given the brittle sound and drooping pitch that hindered her effectiveness as Donna Elvira. Erika Juengst offered the most technically cohesive singing among the women of the cast, and she brought out the charm of Zerlina nicely.

Anthony Barrese efficiently conducted the score, which was trimmed of most recitatives. (Cooke delivered brief, sometimes witty narratives to fill in plot details that would have been conveyed by those recitatives.) At the piano, Daniel Lau played ably, but didn't summon the virtuosic flair that might make one forget about the absence of an orchestra.

Next up for Baltimore Concert Opera is an evening of separate acts from three Puccini pieces  April 29 at the Engineers Club. (I hope the intermissions on that occasion won't drag on the way the one Thursday night did. That might have been one reason why several audience members slipped away before Act 2.)

As for the long-range picture, it's too soon, of course, to know how the new company will develop, but it's off to an encouraging start. I like the idea White described for couple of Baltimore Concert Opera presentations with orchestra at the Lyric, but I can also envision a scenario where they alternate with a couple of fully-staged productions brought here by, say, Washington National Opera. This way, the local musicians who gave so much to the defunct Baltimore Opera would still have an outlet, while the public would get the best of two worlds. I wish something like this could happen by next season, because what I fear the most is that even one year without opera at the Lyric will make it all the harder to get the momentum going for something truly grand to blossom here again.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:50 PM | | Comments (4)


Mr Smith seems very hung up on the idea of Washington National Opera coming to Baltimore. I personally believe that such an event would not be good for the people of Baltimore as this is a city of considerable size and prominence. Baltimore is always getting the rap of second class when compared to DC. Washingtonians (especially those in the arts) look down on Baltimore. The current city administration and community are always looking at ways to break the mold and make Baltimore stand on its own. The proximity to the national capital makes this extremely difficult without DC companies having "arms" in the city itself. There is no reason why Baltimore can't have its own full-scale opera company. There may be a couple years of building without any grand opera but the presence of the WNO in Baltimore would certainly hinder prospects of a full grand opera company forming itself in Baltimore. What would fans of the Symphony say if the BSO was replaced with "touring" concerts of the NSO? Please let Washington stay in Washington and let Baltimore bounce back and form a company it deserves.

Thanks for the feedback. Believe me, I understand civic pride. And if someone can magically raise the millions needed for classy, staged opera in Baltimore, I'd be the first to cheer it on. Call me impatient, but I guess I just hate the idea of having to wait years for something to happen here. As for the BSO analogy, if that orchestra went out of business, we'd still have other ensembles and resources in town for a new, quality orchestra to be up and running fairly quickly. Oh yeah, one other little thing. For a long time, Baltimore welcomed the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera at the Lyric, without, apparently, feeling like a second-class city. Maybe having them around regularly helped drive the local organizations to greater heights. TIM

Dear Mr. Smith,

For all the value for being the idea man who envisions improvements upon a gutsy company's maiden venture, one wishes that you would please put your money where your mouth is. Some of that could be taken care of by recognizing the work accomplished by artists such as Maestro White (not just a Baltimore Opera artist but also the cover conductor for the Met's new Sonnambula) and Miss Mondanaro (Hasmik Papian's impressive cover for Baltimore Opera's recent Norma). Yet even more could be accomplished by – instead of just pointing out the flaws – offering to be a voice of leadership with the company. Instead of complaining that certain singers rise to your standard, offer to coach them (if you have any skills as a role coach). Instead of making a wish list of things BCO should do, donate some money out of your own pocket. These are tough times all around – not just for the economy, but also for the values of operatic performance in America – and good ideas need a follow-through. BCO has mounted their first production and are working on their second: they've come up with an idea and have followed through. You are encouraged to do the same.

Thanks for the comments. If I ever leave the music journalism profession, I could at least entertain your suggestions. Meanwhile, I'll stick to my job. I do wish, however, that you had read what I wrote a little more carefully, as you seemed to have missed a few things. TS

In response to Jon's comments, Baltimore is not going to "bounce back" so easily (if ever!) with grand opera. We apparently have enough trouble filling pot-holes in this city, let alone supporting _more_ (read: new) major arts companies (which, of course, I would _love_). The fact that the BOC folded so awfully should be regarded as a _sign_, not a suggestion, of the potential for arts here. I hold no bias to _any_ other city; why should we _not_ invite their performing-arts companies here to play? I think having the Met, WNO, NSO, Philadelphia Orchestra, NYPhil, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, etc., perform in brief visits here could _only_ help the current situation. (Truth be told, we need a _new_ theatre first -- the Lyric is a dinosaur _well_ past its prime!)

I applaud Mr. Smith for giving a fair assessment of this situation, as well as a _realistic_ review of this "Don Giovanni" production. His judgement in these matters is usually quite excellent, and I find myself agreeing with him frequently.

Thanks for the comments, and the vote of (more or less) confidence.TIM

The Federal stimulus package was intended to preserve and create jobs, so it is distressing that government officials in the Baltimore area and in the State of Maryland were unable to find the money to help the Baltimore Opera.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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