Catching up with Peabody Opera, Community Concerts at Second

March 20, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Just a few words on last weekend's musical jaunts, in case you were desperate for my report, however belated.

It was good to see Peabody Opera Theatre exploring the outer banks of the repertoire -- Delibes' once-popular "Lakme." The work turned up locally about a decade ago in a musically solid, amateurish-looking production from the old Baltimore Opera Company.

It's a colorful and charming opera (charming if you don't count a stabbing and a suicide). The plot, set in India, offers something of a foretaste of "Madama Butterfly," with a cultural clash involving a foreign military officer and the daughter of a Brahmin priest.  

"Lakme" is now mostly remembered for the exquisite Flower Duet, sung by Lakme and her servant Malilka in the first act; that piece found renewed life in TV commercials. The Bell Song, a coloratura showpiece for Lakme, still enjoys popularity, too. The rest of the score, which sometimes has the lightness of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and sometimes the dramatic urgency of Bizet, holds many a reward.

On Saturday night at Peabody Institute's Friedberg Hall, the most consistently impressive work was in the pit. Led with a propulsive, yet sensitive, touch by Hajime Teri Murai, the orchestra produced the atmospheric music with considerable poise and nuance.

In the title role, Laura Whittenberger showed promise, especially in her earnest phrasing. The voice revealed a pleasant warmth mid-range, but turned edgy at the top. The soprano's caution in the Bell Song limited its effectiveness.

Halim Shon sounded like a good tenor in the making. There was a plangent quality in his timbre and, during the last act, a telling fire in his delivery. James Kil's warm tone made the small role of Hadji register.

The student status of the cast was evident all around, especially in the acting department (director Andrew Chown seemed to rely heavily on stock gestures). But, at its best, the performance served this deftly crafted opera well.

On Sunday afternoon, Community Concerts at Second presented a recital by violist Gilad Karni, who holds the principal viola chair in the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich.

Given the relatively slender repertoire for the instrument, many a violist steals from the other string instruments, and that's what Karni did here, starting with a cello suite by Bach -- delivered with a burnished tone and expressive articulation (being St. Patrick's Day, the concluding Gigue seemed extra fitting).

For the rest of the program, the violist was joined by pianist Michael Sheppard, a partnership that produced potent results.

Stravinsky's Suite Italiene got a bright and breezy workout (Sheppard's bravura in the Scherzino proved especially notable). 

Franck's Violin Sonata made a smooth fit for Karni, whose viola conjured something of the sweetness of a violin, as well as the dark glow of a cello. His playing was unabashedly passionate, technically pristine, and he was matched every step of the way by Sheppard.

Highlights included a taut, breathless dash through the coda of the second movement, and a terrifically intense account of the finale. The sonata's audacity and poetic power could be freshly appreciated at every turn.  

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