Annapolis Opera's musical tradition for the holiday season, "Mozart by Candlelight," has been even lovelier the past three years after moving to the historical First Presbyterian Church of Annapolis.
Built as a theater in 1828, it became a church in 1846, a year after the Naval Academy was established. The candle-lit setting and acoustics make the church an ideal location for the Mozart concert. At Sunday's event, the church was close to its 390-person capacity.
Opera President Dennis Monk welcomed the audience, noting that the Annapolis performing arts community will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - which is Jan. 27 - with festival events scheduled at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts: the Annapolis Symphony next month, Ballet Theatre of Maryland in February, the Annapolis Chorale in early March and the opera's Magic Flute in mid-March.
The event has an innate charm because of the efforts of many opera volunteers. Its success must be attributed to Annapolis Opera's artistic and music director, Ronald J. Gretz, who arranged a delightful program that showcased four talented young singers in a wide selection of rarely heard arias and ensembles from Mozart operas.
A skilled accompanist, Gretz is also a witty narrator who conveyed his appreciation of Mozart's genius with anecdotes as he introduced each aria.
Bass-baritone Christopher Austin, a Baltimore native who has performed in a variety of East Coast operatic, orchestral and concert venues, sang arias from La Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflote and Don Giovanni. Not only does the New England Conservatory of Music graduate possess a voice of warmth and power, he invests each aria with appropriate feeling.
Laura Strickling, a Chicago native who has graced Peabody Opera's stage, shared her beautiful soprano voice as she opened the program with Alleluia from Exultate, jubilate (Rejoice) that perfectly expressed the season. Strickling revealed strong dramatic talents in a duet from Magic Flute with Austin and sensitivity in a gorgeous Porgi, amor from Marriage of Figaro.
Making his Annapolis Opera debut on Sunday, tenor Tanner Knight offered a stunning Se di lauri from Mozart's first opera, Mitridate, which is seldom performed, and delivered a bravura O wie angstlich from Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio).
In each aria, Knight revealed a powerful voice of astonishing range.
Recent Maryland Opera Studio graduate Colleen Daly possesses a lovely, clear soprano voice that easily handled fioritura passages. From The Magic Flute, Daly delivered a compelling Die Holler rache - the Queen of the Night's extremely difficult-to-sing aria.
The four singers combined to offer a ravishing Non ti fidar from Don Giovanni to close the program.