Opera appreciation classes hit high note with seniors

July 21, 2006|By MARY JOHNSON | MARY JOHNSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From a handful of students in her first class in 2001 to her current 200, Mary Ann Cashman has raised interest in opera among Anne Arundel County retirees.

Her opera appreciation courses are offered through Anne Arundel Community College at various senior centers.

Classes consist of watching an opera on video as Cashman explains the plot and discusses interpretation, style, design, stage movement, costumes and sets.

Cashman describes her students as "ranging from lifelong opera lovers to novices who have only recently moved beyond their appreciation of symphonic music and musical theater into opera."

Videos range from performances starring opera luminaries such as tenors Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti to vintage divas such as Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills (at her peak in a rare video recorded at Wolf Trap Farm Park in northern Virginia).

Performance bonus

As a bonus, students get to attend live opera performances including invitational final dress rehearsals of Summer Opera Theater Company at Catholic University's Hartke Theater. Cashman considers attending "live opera performances crucial to the students' education."

Last Friday, more than 40 opera students from Cashman's senior classes and from her Annapolis Opera-sponsored classes traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the final dress rehearsal of Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Now in its 26th season, Summer Opera generously continues to offer these "preview performances" to opera students of all ages for a suggested $10 donation.

The July 14 Il Trovatore preview performance ranks near the top of the six fine performances I've attended over past summer seasons.

One of Verdi's most popular operas -- Trovatore is based on a 19th-century Spanish play that tells of Leonora - lady in waiting to the queen - who loves the troubadour Manrico, a captain who serves a Prince who fights against the queen. The queen's general count di Luna loves Leonora and is jealous of Manrico.

Demands well met

Adding confusion to the plot is the gypsy Azucena, whose mother was burned at the stake and who raised Manrico as her son after mistakenly throwing her own son into the flames that consumed her mother.

What the opera lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in glorious music. The arias are melodic, short and filled with drama that require four fine singers and a vigorous orchestra in the pit. Summer Opera beautifully met these demands at the preview performance.

Well-staged by Leland Kimball with appropriate scenery that could be seamlessly changed while always contributing to the production's overall elegance, the opera was conducted with assurance and sensitivity by Hajime Teri Murrai, who serves as music director of Peabody Symphony and Concert Orchestras.

Argentine soprano Fabiana Bravo, who came to Catholic University of America on a full scholarship, has sung at least a quartet of leading roles for Summer Opera including Mimi in La Boheme and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni as well as major roles for opera companies in Chicago, San Francisco and New York City. Bravo delivers a lyrical nuanced performance in a luminous voice of great flexibility and power.

As Manrico, tenor Benjamin Warschawski gives a compelling performance that is perhaps even better than his memorable Duke in last summer's Rigoletto.

Effective throughout, Warschawski offers a ringing rendition of the showpiece aria Di quella pira as he orders his men to battle. Later his voice seemed especially beautiful when heard offstage singing non ti scordar di me ("Don't forget me") and in a duet with Azucena as he sang Riposa, o Madre to soothe her.

Passion and vigor

Substituting for Jason Stearns, baritone Grant Youngblood delivered a commendable performance filled with passion and vigor as Count di Luna, from the opening trio with Leonora and Manrico Qual voce to a gorgeously expressive performance of the beautiful aria Il balen del suo sorriso, where he sings of his love for Leonora.

Mezzo-soprano Patrice Houston makes a stunning Summer Opera debut as Azucena, especially effective in her Stride la vampa describing her mother's death. Houston conveys Azucena's passion in elegant phrasing and throughout her performance reveals the emotional power with the stamina that the Azucena role requires.

Baltimore resident Kwang Kyu Lee is outstanding in the supporting role of Ferrando, Captain of the Guard, and soprano Monica Szabo -- also of Baltimore -- is lovely in her debut as Leonora's confidante Inez.

There will be a final Trovatore performance at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, for which seats may be available. For information check the Web site at www.summeropera.org or call the box office at 202-319-4000.

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