Dallas — “Ritorna vincitor!” (“Return, Victor”) not only was the title of the opening aria in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Verdi-fiesta concert on Thursday evening. There were various other victorious returns that night.
One was our new music director, Fabio Luisi, conducting romantic era opera, namely Verdi, which is a career specialty of his. In fact, he held the title of Principle Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera from 2011 to 2017, moving to the DSO after his impressive 2018 guest shot earned him the title of Musical Director here. Considering that the Met and other national opera companies have postponed performances until the fall of 2021 (and as Coronavirus cases rise again, you can expect more to follow suit), it feels like a special treat to hear live opera performances, even if in socially distanced circumstances (the first five rows of the Meyerson Symphony Center are blocked off, so that spit from singers and instruments wouldn’t reach audience members).
Another victorious return was soprano Angela Meade, who delivered a stellar performance of Verdi’s aria from Aida that opens with those words. We last saw her in The Dallas Opera’s fabulous production of Verdi’s delightful comedy Falstaff. Aida is in tough place when she sings this aria. She is a slave and in love with Radames, the commander of the army, who is headed out to defeat the Ethiopians. Everyone sings “Ritorna vincitor!” to cheer him on. Unfortunately for Aida, unbeknownst to everyone, is really the princess of Ethiopia. So, the cheer of victory is wished for the defeat of her father.
Meade’s huge voice is made for arias like this. Better yet, you could see all of the conflicting emotions in her face as well as in her voice as she blazed through this well-known tour-de-force aria. (My interview with Meade and the equally famous cast member of Falstaff, Stephanie Blythe can be found here.)
We returned to Aida with the catfight aria from Act 2. Through trickery, Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian king and also in love with the dashing Radames, discovers that the lowly Aida is her rival for his heart. In the confrontation of the two, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was a dignified Amneris, barely holding in her rage in check.
Barton also has a Verdian voice with a glowing top and as impressive chest voice, which she could use differently depending on the words. But her middle voice valiantly tried to hold its own against Meade’s vocal tsunami.
Not so when Barton let loose and gave a blistering reading of “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. Eboli, another princess role in another love triangle, curses her beauty that gets her nothing but trouble. Her performance of this soul-bearing aria, capturing every nuance, was the highlight of the concert.
Barton was scheduled to sing this exact role in The Dallas Opera’s ill-fated production of Don Carlo that was a cultural victim of COVID-19. But not to worry, we will hear her sing it in March 2021 when TDO puts the opera back on the stage.
Speaking of huge voices and Don Carlo, another return to Dallas is tenor Bryan Hymel, memorable from his performance in Puccini’s La bohème in 2015. He took the stage with a powerful introduction to the soiree with another dramatic aria from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. He continued later with more Don Carlo, “Io l’ho perduta... io la vidi, ail suo sorriso,” another assay about the torment of conflicted love.
Barton held her own better against Hymel as the two sang one more anguishing confrontation, this time with a duet between adoptive mother and son, from Verdi’s Il trovatore.
Meade ended the singing portion of the program with another dramatic aria, “Pace, pace, mio dio” from the Verdi opera La forza del destino. Except for its conclusion, this aria is quite different from the others on the program in that most of it is sung with quiet passion. Meade demonstrated the control she has over her voice by delivering hushed and floating soft phrases.
Luisi was a marvel all evening. He was perfectly on top of the text and right with all of the singers. In the loud parts, the orchestral volume just a degree under the singers but still offered just the right amount of support. Further, all of many rubato phrases were right in sync.
In the two solo turns of orchestra and conductor, Luisi demonstrated the partnership he has already built with the players in the DSO, albeit reduced to opera-pit size here. The “Sinfonia” from Aida opened with strings so hushed that they were barely audible, an extremely hard dynamic to achieve. But with the overture to La forza del destino. he successfully alternated between the lyric passages and the dramatic ones that burned the floor.
It was good to experience to experience Luisi on his own turf: opera. Most adequate conductors can deliver a stirring performance of the big romantic orchestral works, which Luisi has programmed thus far. But to move from a good to great conductor they must spend significant time coming up in the ranks of an opera house. Alas, this is no longer possible with today’s precisely structured opera companies, resulting in a crop of conductors with Ph.Ds instead of real conducting chops honed in the opera house. Not so with Luisi — and it shows. Dallas is fortunate to have him here.