Baltimore Concert Opera debuts with 'Don Giovanni' and an overflow crowd
Baltimore 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 ...
All 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.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTOS