Dallas — As part of its community outreach efforts, The Dallas Opera presented a family concert on Nov. 2 at the Winspear Opera House. It featured two singers and the full TDO orchestra, conducted by Anthony Barrese. The afternoon concert lasted about 90 minutes and was a program of opera arias and duets, spaced with two overtures to give the singers a break.
While it would have been nice if some of the outstanding singers in the apprentice program had been featured, two singers were brought in specifically for this program. Both have major opera house credits and delivered a polished performance of some standard repertoire.
Soprano Joanna Mongiardo has a clear and focused coloratura voice. While it is not a large sound, it is on the more lyric side of the ledger thus avoiding the chirpiness that afflict others in her fach (a German word that means category of repertoire). The sharp focus of her voice allows her to easily sound out over the orchestra. She was also impressive displaying her lyric side with the aria from Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah. However, she was at her best in the doll aria from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. The doll is a mechanical, robotlike creation that sings arias as long as she is wound up. She runs down and has to be rewound, an effect created by the ratchet in the orchestra. Too bad it was an imaginary person on stage doing the winding.
Mezzo soprano Emily Fons has a dynamite voice: dark and rich yet flexible, and that dark sound is gloriously natural, not manufactured as we sometimes hear. She is universally praised for her androgynous portrayal of young men in many pants roles, such as Nicklausse in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. We got a taste of how she sounds in that role (wonderful), although her striking and slinky evening gown was hardly “pants” or androgynous. Her rendition of Dorabella's aria from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte was also excellent, although this aria barely survives outside of its context.
The two voices were not really matched in the two duets on the program, since they are not of similar size. This was most noticeable in the duet from Cosi. Once again, this duet is clever in its context but requires too much explanation to work by itself. Maestro Barrese did an adequate job of describing the situation, but infidelity and boyfriend hopping is hardly a subject for a family concert. In the opera, it is funny because it is so ridiculous and the humor so broad. They were best in their rendition of the Flower Duet from Lakmé. This is a selection that can stand alone and it was shear pleasure to hear.
Barrese is a fine conductor and turned in an impressive performance. He mirrors his hands, which is unfortunate because it prevents using his left hand to convey expression and nuance. He was at his best in the tango from Dominick Argento's opera The Dream of Valentino. The uncredited accordion player did a fine job as well. The overture to Mozart's Cosi suffered from a lack of differentiation in the sections that repeat. Of course, the limited rehearsal time probably prevented such subtleties.
It is a mystery why TDO thinks that a program of arias and duets, sung in a foreign language, would accomplish the goal of this concert, which is to introduce opera to children and adults who are not familiar with its wonders. Opera is not about flashy arias and pretty duets. It is a drama that unfolds with the actor's lines raised to a new level by glorious music. A program of arias is all well and good for the cognoscenti, but it is not opera nor does it give a new audience an accurate picture of what opera really is. At least they used projected supertitles, which was fine for those who could read, which left out all of the younger children. Besides, the words lose their meaning when they are not in the context for which they were written.
“What is she singing about,” one child was overheard asking his father.
“I have no idea,” he answered, “but it is pretty. Just listen.”
TDO missed an opportunity here. A program of entire scenes, sung in English, with minimal acting, an occasional prop and a few set pieces (such as a table and a chair) would let this neophyte audience see what opera is really about.
For example, the end of the first act of Puccini's La boheme is really a self-contained mini-opera. Everyone, young and old, can relate to such a tender love-at-first-sight scene. And talk about glorious music! There are a myriad of such self-contained scenes that do not rely on the rest of the opera to be accessible. Even something as short as politeness battle between the young and pretty Susanna and woman of a certain age, Marcellina, in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, would work. The situation with each insisting the other go first and making catty remarks as an intentionally overheard aside is very funny on its own.
As it was, the program was nicely programmed and contained some music by living composers (hooray!). The two singers did a first-class job and Barrese was on top of the text, no easy job in the accompanied recitatives, even with adequate rehearsal time (which I am fairly certain he didn't have).
But an aria recital is not an opera and as introduction to opera, it failed.