ZACHARY LEWIS – GUEST CRITIC
Worry not about the state of opera. If the Young Artists this year at the Chautauqua Opera Company are any indication, the future of the art is bright indeed.
So it would seem, anyway, after the annual Opera & Pops Concert Saturday night at the Amphitheater. On a fun evening in collaboration with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and Principal Pops Conductor Stuarts Chafetz, the troupe’s up-and-comers proved they’ve already come quite far and only have the world ahead of them.
If the farewell to the 2021 opera season, aptly subtitled “We Are Different, We Are One,” was limited in any way by the pandemic, it wasn’t apparent to the audience. The 90-minute program, a charming mix of operatic arias and scenes from musical theater, amounted to a stunning parade of talent and a thorough showcase of every voice type, all of it supported by an alert, colorful orchestra.
Sopranos, mezzos, tenors and baritones — seven artists in all — took the stage in various combinations and worked often surprisingly mature magic on an array of scores penned by everyone from Mozart and Puccini to Jasmine Barnes and Sage Bond, the company’s 2021 composer fellows. At night’s end, all gathered with others from the troupe for a beautifully lilting account of “Sing to Love,” from the finale to the Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus.
Those 90 minutes passed quickly. Nothing about these singers, other than their visible youth, suggested inexperience. No matter whether they were singing opera or musical theater, alone or with another, in English, Russian, French or Italian. All sounded ready for any stage and virtually any repertoire. This was no three-course musical meal. This was a smorgasbord.
To name one star or one highlight would be a disservice. There were standout moments, to be sure, but virtually every performance and every artist evinced some special quality worthy of note. In some cases, it was a masterful grasp of the language, or a gift for character portrayal; in others, it was a knack for partnership, for melding voices. Still others emerged as pure vocal powerhouses.
Ladies first, to be polite.
Soprano Chasiti Lashay was a knockout. Wielding a robust, radiant instrument in an aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the soprano filled the house with throbbing sound and captured the crowd with ease. She also stepped adroitly into Puccini and hammered home the message with baritone Yazid Gray in Barnes’ timely “Do Something!”
Another polished presence was mezzo-soprano Lucy Baker. Her power in a more subtle scene from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was her expressive French and nuanced vocal shading, but she also played Little Red Riding Hood to naïve perfection in a scene from Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
No less impressive, in other ways, was mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra. She stole the show with sheer color and bubbly animation in a scene from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, then turned around and commanded attention with a fierce performance of “You Don’t Know This Man,” from Parade.
Gray, a baritone, was similarly versatile. He was a force of nature in the Barnes but also an ardent lover, singing in Russian, in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Jared Esguerra, too, would seem to have just about any leading tenor role in his pocket, after his performances Saturday of Verdi and Puccini, along with “Stranger in Paradise.”
Baritone Henry Griffin and bass Michael Colman shared a role in the Strauss finale but handily distinguished themselves everywhere else. Colman oozed evil as Sondheim’s wolf but also stole some hearts with “If Ever I Would Leave You,” while Griffin delivered luminous Mozart and a supremely tender “Edelweiss.”
Easily the night’s most unusual offering, and a rarity in opera, was “Truth.” Accompanying herself on guitar and backed by deft orchestration, mezzo-soprano and composer Sage Bond unleashed a folksy anthem whose text was hard to discern but whose raw power and sheer originality was undeniable.
Wrapping the 2021 season and showcasing Young Artists weren’t the only functions served by “We Are Different, We Are One.” No, the night accomplished something else as well, something arguably even more important. It reminded a sizable crowd that opera hasn’t changed. Even in 2021, it remains what it’s always been: entertaining, edifying and, often, a whole lot of fun.
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.