Because San Diego’s Opera NEO presents its opera festival in late summer, the company does its best to fight the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome the rest of the year. Programs such as Saturday’s (Dec. 17) Holiday Concert at Palisades Presbyterian Church help keep Opera NEO on the radar.
For this concert, Artistic Director Peter Kozma brought back three of the stars from the company’s successful August 2016 Don Giovanni production: soprano Anna-Lisa Hackett, tenor Omar Najmi, and baritone Bernardo Bermudez. He added soprano Kelley Hart, the company’s Associate Director, and accompanist Korey Barrett, the company’s Music Director.
Unless you stage Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, opera and Christmas have little connection, except, of course, for the opening acts of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, which incidentally take place on Christmas Eve. So Kozma went right to Puccini, offering five moments from (almost) everyone’s favorite opera.
Najmi poured on the ardor in Rodolfo’s celebrated aria “Che gelida manina,” allowing his bright upper range to soar into the lofty, favorable acoustics of the suburban church sanctuary. Hackett joined him in “O soave fanciulla,” the love duet that immediately follows Rodolfo’s aria in the opera. Their well-matched voices and dramatic fervor deftly unfolded the joy of newly discovered love that Puccini so craftily portrayed in this duet. Hackett and Najmi made a favorable impression opening the concert with a flamboyant duet from Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta The Csárdás Princess, so the Opera NEO audience was ready for more collaboration from these two engaging singers.
In Musetta’s saucy “Quando m’en vo,” soprano Kelley Hart gave a knowing star turn. A lighter voice than we typically hear singing this role, she nevertheless easily portrayed the coquettish élan the aria requires. The vocal ensemble members brought out the opera’s telling dramatic conflicts in “Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina!”—hearing more of the complete ensemble sing together would have made a stronger program. The men finished off the La bohème set with “O Mimì, tu più non torni,” evoking that universal self-pity guys wallow in when romantic ventures head south.
For the remainder of the program’s first half, the holiday theme also went south. Najmi effortlessly crooned “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” that indestructible operetta chestnut from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles, and Hackett successfully navigated the coloratura excess of Donizetti’s “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Don Pasquale. She found herself in more hospitable stylistic territory giving a masterful account of Violetta’s “Ah, fors’ è lui” and its blazing cabaletta “Sempre libera” from Verdi’s La traviata.
For the program’s second half, Kozma’s crew mined that popular Christmas canon from “White Christmas” to “Santa Baby,” but two selections stood out: Pietro Yon’s “Gesù Bambino” and Adolphe Adam’s “O Holy Night.” These popular pieces are written in effusive 19th-century operatic style (for the history buffs: the noted opera singer Emily Laurey premiered “O Holy Night” in 1847 in Roquemaure, France), but are all too frequently assigned to choral amateurs for local consumption.
So it was rewarding to hear Hackett and Najmi fill the familiar arched themes of “O Holy Night” with their resonant, confident voices. I will hold onto this memory the next time I am accompanying a carol sing-along and someone excitedly requests “O Holy Night.” Bermudez infused Yon’s “Gesù Bambino” with warmth and rich baritonal color that did not compromise the gentle pastorale rhythms that suffuse this Christmas Eve charmer.
To close a pleasant evening, the vocal ensemble toasted themselves and the audience in a spirited rendition of Johann Strauss’ “Champagne Chorus” from his comic operetta Die Fledermaus.
I would be seriously remiss if I failed to credit the suave, unfailingly stylistically authentic accompaniments of Korey Barrett at the piano. His pellucid reductions of dense orchestral scores to the keyboard are nonpareil!