Is opera your guilty pleasure? Do you revel in drama, romance and full orchestral sound? There is nothing like meeting friends, hearing the whisper of fine clothing, and settling in your favorite seat for a few hours of enjoyment. Each year, Carmel Bach Festival presents opera excerpts that stretch our imagination and challenge the musicians. This year we heard selections from four different operas from four different musical eras.
As Jos Milton explained in his pre-concert talk, opera is drama. There’s a plot conveyed by a libretto set to music. Adding to the excellent written program notes, Dr. Milton gave us the historical perspective and background of those who create opera: the patrons, authors of novel(la)s and of course composters. Maestro Paul Goodwin also gave us a little extra information on each set of excerpts: who is the sinner and who is the saint. For those in the audience, like this reviewer, who may not be well-versed in popular operas, this made it easier to understand and enjoy the performance. When you’re not as confused, you catch on faster.
This listener appreciated the choosing of Acis and Galatea by George Frideric Handel as the first set. Seeing a theorbo and harpsichord on stage was a familiar, comfortable sight. The music was exquisite. I appreciated the clarification of which character is feared, and which is to be trusted and admired. Mhairi Lawson sang the traditional role as heroine Galatea, Thomas Cooley sang the traditional role as hero Acis, and Dashon Burton sang the traditional role as antihero Polyphemous. I definitely caught the irony of a sopranino recorder in a duet with the giant cyclops.
After the opening set was finished, some of the musicians changed where they were seated on stage. Goodwin reminded us of the details of The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky. He explained who would be singing which role. Meg Bragle joined in the set wearing a bit of costume befitting her role as Baba the Turk. The vocal solos, effortlessly sung by the artists, seemed quite demanding to me with wide jumps and plenty of emotion to convey especially as Tom Rakewell was being attacked. The Chorale and Chorus prepared by Andrew Megill, associate conductor and director, commented on the action. The supertitles helped as I was sufficiently distracted, in a good way, by the wonderful score. Since this work is from Stravinsky’s Neo-Classic period, it was easier for me to follow than many Modern operas.
During intermission, the harpsichord was replaced by a few more percussion, brass and woodwind instruments. This worked nicely to support vocalists in excerpts from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Soprano Mhairi Lawson added a fetching hat to her costume to help set the scene of the plot. The servants helped in sorting out the aristocrats and adjusting the height of the music stands. After another shift of instrumentalists, we heard the final group of excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. I’m a bit more familiar with this opera so I’ll confess although I was a tad distracted by the colorful dress Meg Bragle wore in the title role of Carmen, the joy of all the performers on stage was infectious and carried the day.
I am more tempted now to attend a full opera production. I won’t be overwhelmed as often or confused as quickly. I believe that I just may enjoy it a lot more. Especially if the skill of the performers is of the high level we observed from the orchestra, soloists, chorale and chorus of the Carmel Bach Festival.