Dallas — The 2017 edition of the Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors had its first of two concerts on Nov. 11 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House (the second will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18). Six conductors, chosen from 161 applicants, each conducted two operatic selections—one instrumental and the other a selection with invited singers.
Here are reports on the conductors from Nov. 11, in alphabetical order:
Brazilian Alba Bomfim was immediately an audience favorite with her warm approach to the podium and energetic bow before she even started. Since she appeared in the pivotal sixth position, she conducted two pieces in a row. The first was the cavatina from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, “Come in quest'ora bruna.” Sara Gartland brought her lovely soprano voice to the effort, bringing two different moods of the aria, one reminiscing of her childhood and the other the resolution to remember her roots. Bomfim was right with her in both mood and tempo.
Her second assignment was a difficult one, “La Tregenda” from Puccini’s early and rarely performed opera, Le Villi. It is a wild witches dance, casting curses. It gets wilder as it progresses. This was probably the most challenging music on the program to conduct and Bomfim whipped up a storm.
Mélisse Brunet from France got a wonderful assignment, conducting Mozart’s delightful overture to his opera, Le Nozze di Figaro. You can probably credit this to nerves, but the overture felt rushed. The tempo was so fast that the players in the excellent Dallas Opera Orchestra were barely able to make the runs in tempo. As a result, the performance was slightly ragged. She did a much better job with her second selection, “Suzel, Buon di,” the so-called “cherry duet” from Mascagni’s rarely performed opera L’ami Fritz. This is the only selection from this opera that is ever heard—usually on duet programs or opera selection concerts such as this one. Tenor Alex Boyer, a last-minute addition to the roster of singers, joined the wonderful Gartland. This is a clever aria about an interaction that will eventually lead to “ever-happy evering” between Fritz and Suzel. Boyer tended to push his voice, which occasionally made the pitch on the sharp side, but he has a fine Italian tenor voice. Opening his mouth more would help. Gartland offered an example of the advantages of opening your mouth widely while singing.
Lina Gonzalez-Granados, who claims both the U.S. and Colombia as nationalities, must have drawn the short straw because she was the first one up to conduct. But she was compensated for that by being assigned Mozart’s overture to Die Zauberflöte. The opening three chords are a frequent cause of arguments between conductors on how they should be done. No reasons to go into all that here, but Gonzalez-Granados solved the problem by conducting them one way at the beginning and using another solution when they reoccurred. It worked both times. Her second assignment came at the end of the program and was the only vocal ensemble of the evening: “Qual voluttá trasorrere” from another rarely performed opera, Verdi’s I Lombardi. In this ensemble, a hermit begs the two protagonists, one mortally wounded, to turn to God so that they can meet again in heaven. Gartland and Boyer were joined by the excellent lyric bass-baritone André Courville.
American Karin Hendrickson got a plum assignment to conduct the beautiful Intermezzo from Puccini’s Manon Leascaut. While she certainty had the right idea about how the music should go, she didn’t use a baton and most of her motions were around or below her waist, which had to be difficult for the orchestral players in the back to see. However she was ignited, as were we all, by mezzo-soprano Ewa Plonka’s electrifying performance of “Condotta ell'era in ceppi,”
from Act II of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This is Azucena’s narrative about how she mistakenly tossed her own son into a fire thinking it was the son of the hated Count. This is one of the most famous blood-and-guts narratives in all of opera. Plonka delivered a blazing performance on the order of Dolora Zajick, the greatest living interpreter of the role.
Australian/American conductor Carolyn Watson was fortunate to be assigned more from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and the personable Courville to sing it. This aria, “Non piu andrai,” is sung by Figaro as he is humorously preparing the youthful Cherubino to go to war. It is best in the context of the opera but Courville did a charming job of covering for all the missing stage business.
The last conductor on the list was Monika Wolinska from Poland. As with some of the above pairings, Wolinska was lucky to get Chinese baritone Yunpeng Wang to perform what is perhaps the most famous opera aria of all time, “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, with its well-known refrain “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro.”
Wang completely inhabited Rossini’s rascally role and gave a definitive performance. Another rehearsal or two would have helped Wolinska to know exactly how Wang was taking this aria full of tempo changes, but she did a fine job of keeping up with him. Her second assignment was a difficult one, another selection from a rarely performed opera, this time the overture to Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliana. This overture incorporates thematic materials yet to come in the opera. This means that there are several changes of mood and tempo. Wolinska did a fine job merging all the disparate materials into a whole and her performance of the overture was quite successful.
The six conductors will appear again on Saturday at the Winspear. There are very few female conductors working today and even less working in opera. This effort, spearheaded by TDO General Manager and CEO Keith Cerny, is an amazing program that will surely go a long way to correcting this sorry situation in the future.