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The Duke Opera Theater, under the direction of David Heid, presented the premiere of "A Night of Italian Opera" in an on-line virtual performance featuring as special guests the Duke Symphony Orchestra directed by Harry Davidson and the Duke Chorale directed by Rodney Wynkoop. The program included works from the baroque era to bel canto to verismo sung by students in the opera theater program headed by Heid. The performances took place against backdrops inside and around Baldwin Auditorium and employed a variety of ways of coping the COVID-19 pandemic. It may be seen and heard streaming online here.
The concert opened with a rousing performance of the Overture to Così fan tutte by W. A. Mozart. The Duke Symphony Orchestra sparkled with energy and good humor under the leadership of Davidson.
The first of the talented singers, mezzo-soprano Sophia Leeman, was introduced by guest program host and opera singer Adria Firestone, who gave a brief description of the setting of the aria "Il segreto per esser felici" from Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti. In this bel canto aria, the character, Orsini, shares her secret to being happy. Leeman gave a convincing performance of the "live in the present" philosophy of life.
The piano accompaniment for the soloists throughout the program was provided by Daniel Seyfried with exceptional skill of support and enhancement of the performances. Each selection was introduced by the dulcet voice of Firestone.
Baritone Devon Carter took the (virtual) stage next with "Questo amor, vergogna mia" from Giacomo Puccini's early lyric opera Edgar. The opera was unsuccessful, but this lovely aria is an impressive sample of Puccini's lyric genius which was to be the earmark of his works to come. Expressing the intensity of love, it was sung with warmth and passion by Carter.
Soprano Rebecca Williamson offered a stirring, and well-controlled presentation of "V'adoro pupille" from G. F. Handel's Giulio Cesare.
Giuseppe Verdi's Un Ballo in maschera provided the playful aria "Saper Vorreste" in a vivid performance by soprano Alexa Burnston.
The stage was next set for Verdi's iconic chorus from Nabucco, "Va, pensiero" sung with the intense passion of longing for homeland by Duke Chorale conducted by Wynkoop and sensitively accompanied by Hye-Bin Song. The setting with choristers spread the ubiquitous six-feet apart, some standing, some sitting and some piped in visual electronic frames, was a unique illustration of coping with the COVID-19 challenge. Wynkoop demonstrated his awesome skills in leading the chorus in this setting in a unified, balanced, and musically expressive performance.
Soprano Heather Berman sang "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" from Verdi's late masterpiece, Falstaff. Her strong and expressive voice brought the playful character to life.
Matthew Bao sang "O patria..., O tu, Palermo" from I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi. His wide-ranging bass voice was captivating.
Wynkoop led the renowned Duke Chorale in the stirring and calming chorus "Placido è il mar andiamo" from Mozart's Idomeneo. Sophia Leeman sang the beautiful solo part.
Next came two more arias from Mozart's rich repertoire: Soprano Bryn Lawson sang the most delightful and popular Cerubino aria, from Le Nozze di Figaro, "Voi che sapete." And then we heard soprano Julia Leeman sing and effectively portray "Tranquillati, Mia vita…Batti o bel Masetto" from Don Giovanni wherein Zerlina woos the jealous Masetto (quite successfully, it must be said).
The program closed with the rousing bel canto aria "Quel guardo il cavaliere... So anch'io la virtu magica" (She but glanced at that proud night) from Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti. Norina's famous aria is sung towards the end of Act I as she reads a passage about love from a novel. (She sings that her know-how is better than that in the novel.) Soprano Francesca Herrera displayed charm with her eyes, her smile, and her impressive upper register.
It was a delightful evening. The singers all showed promise and evidence of solid training. The program was well-paced and imaginatively produced by sound and film engineer Rick Nelson. Kudos to the masterful Heid. Bravo to all.