Belated weekend report on Baltimore Concert Opera, Nadja-Salerno Sonnenberg

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March 06, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Just for the record, however belated, my musical adventures last Sunday started out at the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion to hear the latest Baltimore Concert Opera presentation. It was enough to restore my faith in the spunky company.

Too many past performances contained what sounded more like sight-reading than thorough immersion in the score and identification with the characters. Not so this time.

For Verdi's "Macbeth," the company assembled a cast that was impressively prepared and, for the most part, vocally equipped for the challenge. In David Lawton, the venture had a sensitive conductor, too, one who actually shaped, not just guided, the music.

Everything clicked so strongly that even the chief drawback of this company -- a budget that only stretches to piano accompaniment -- proved less of an issue. For that matter, James Harp's piano playing, always solid, seemed even more inspired and colorful this time.

"Macbeth" is one of the first great works by Verdi, in my nominally humble opinion. It's taut and dramatically convincing; with few exceptions, the score is richly inspired (the composer's deep admiration for Shakespeare is everywhere in evidence).

An awful lot of the opera's power came through Sunday afternoon, thanks in no small measure to the leads.

In the title role, Grant Youngblood offered a warm, evenly produced baritone and keen attentiveness to nuances of text. His was an intelligent, involving portrayal.

For Lady Macbeth, Verdi specifically wanted a soprano without a pretty voice, since it was more important to him that the singer could convey the dark, intrinsic evil of the ambitious woman. Baltimore Concert Opera hit the spot with Francesca Mondanaro.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not denigrating Mondanaro's vocal instrument. But it's safe to say that prettiness is not its particular attribute. There's an interesting earthiness to the timbre, especially in the low register, which has considerable force and a rich, mezzo-like quality.

When I heard Mondanaro in "Don Giovanni" during the company's inaugural season in 2009, she stood out for distinctiveness of tone and gutsy delivery. Technically, though, she didn't seem in total control, especially in the upper reaches.

This time around, she demonstrated greater security, which made her dynamic phrasing all the more impressive. Above all, she really burrowed into the role (rarely a glance at a score) and created a telling characterization.

Among the other soloists, Tom McNicholas (Banco) and Thomas Booth (Macduff) made sturdy, vibrant contributions. And the chorus, especially the women, rose to the occasion nicely.

From "Macbeth," I headed to the Hopkins campus in time to catch the second half of a Shriver Hall Concert Series chamber music program.

Chausson's Concert for violin, piano and string quartet is one of the glories of late 19th century French music, a work of almost impetuous romanticism, tempered by refinement of technique and an elegant palette of tone colors. 

Once past a tentative start, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg produced a shimmering tone and sculpted many a poetic phrase. Although pianist Anne Marie McDermott needed a truer pianissimo in places, more gossamer articulation in others, she proved a reliable collaborator.

The well-matched Parker Quartet fulfilled its role admirably, nowhere more so than in the tender closing moments of the first movement. 

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