Opera NEO, the undaunted young company that brings San Diego an annual summer festival of unusual operas in non-traditional venues, presented four of its artists in recital Saturday (Feb. 20) at the Palisades Presbyterian Church in Del Cerro. The program could not have been more listener friendly, offering a casual buffet of familiar opera arias and ensembles, Romantic Spanish art songs, and hits from American musical theater.
If the character of the program’s music varied, the level of performance remained top-flight throughout the evening. I particularly enjoyed the chemistry between soprano Kelley Hart and mezzo-soprano Maya Hoover, whose ecstatic “Flower Duet” from Leo Delibes’ nearly forgotten late 19th-century opera Lakmé shimmered as they traced the duet’s lavish figurations with breath-taking unity.
And they proved equally successful when they shifted to the coloratura delights of the duet “Ah, guarda sorella,” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. As they dashed through the composer’s exuberant fioritura, their vocal brilliance coyly underlined the romantic delusions of the opera’s young protagonists. In the touching moment from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, “The Presentation of the Rose,” Hart and Hoover evoked the scene’s sense of wonder and decadent formality that frames the composer’s signature comic opera.
Hart further demonstrated confident agility in her upper range with a sparkling English-language version of the “Vilja Song” from Franz Léhar’s evergreen operetta The Merry Widow. She took her time with the song’s lush, sentimental refrain, but kept the droll verses aptly spirited.
The sultry side of Hoover’s creamy mezzo was put to good use in her recital-opening “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, which Hoover sang as she slunk up the church aisle in a steamy entry as remote from a typical Sunday morning Presbyterian processional as could be imagined. Even more appealing was her vocal flare and flamenco abandon in Fernando Obradors’ art song “El vito.”
The young tenor Charles Mukaida showed promise in a heartfelt account of “Being Alive,” that anthem-like ballad from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company, but the more daunting vocal lines of the Duke’s swaggering aria “Questa o quella” from Verdi’s Rigoletto tested his vocal technique. A student of Hoover’s at the University of Hawai’i, Mukaida participated in the 2015 Opera NEO Festival and is typical of the advanced music students and aspiring young singers the festival is designed to nurture. He was quite effective, however, as Samson to Hoover’s Dalila in her seductively shaped “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” the most familiar aria from Saint-Saëns’ grand Biblical opera, and his Obradors art song “Del cabello más sutil” flowed gracefully.
Joined by Opera NEO Artistic Director and baritone Peter Kozma, the singers ended each half of the program with a favorite quartet: a vigorous account of the Third Act Quartet from Rigoletto and, as the evening’s farewell, a jovial take on the drinking song from La Traviata “Libiamo ne lieti calci.”
Much of the program’s musical success stemmed from the immaculately supportive accompanying of pianist Korey Barrett, who tamed even the most ungainly orchestral reductions into elegant flights of keyboard delight. Barrett also serves as Opera NEO’s Music Director and Vocal Coach.
This program was presented by Opera NEO on Saturday, February 20, 2016, at Palisades Presbyterian Church, 6301 Birchwood St., San Diego. The Opera NEO Summer Opera Festival and Workshop is slated for July 10 to August 7, 2016.