On Sunday afternoon at the Jefferson Center, Opera Roanoke gave its opening gala performance of the last acts from four celebrated masterpieces, with seven guest artists performing in 13 roles. The event, entitled “Opera to Die For,” included two of Verdi’s finest works, “Rigoletto” and “Otello,” framed by Massenet’s “Werther” and Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette.” With nothing but the last act, one might feel robbed of the emotional buildup across multiple acts, but the payoff here was a satisfying smorgasbord of different musical styles and casts of characters.
To help attendees get into the mood for each act, Maestro Steven White provided consummately entertaining synopses of what happens beforehand. White framed the entire event as death by depression, vengeance, jealousy and love. As master of ceremonies, White led the audience through four unrelated stories, framed as a single narrative of operatic death by gunshot, strangulation, poisoning and stabbings of diverse kinds. Then, switching from emcee to conductor in the moment it takes to turn and face the players, White led the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in a brilliant performance.
This event marked Opera Roanoke’s first concert performance of Massenet’s “Werther.” It’s a story first told in the 1774 novel by Goethe, a book whose second edition appended a warning to put an end to a rash of copycat suicides by young male readers. Dinyar Vania gave the first of three fine performances with his warm tenor. Familiar to Opera Roanoke audiences, Vania’s charismatic presence brings romantic heroes to life, and his Werther did not disappoint. Kristin Dauphinais matched Vania’s poignancy with her passionate performance as Charlotte, the object of his unrequited love. Dauphinais used her strong, agile mezzo-soprano to imbue the role with power and excitement.
The heart of the final act in “Rigoletto” is the famous quartet, Bella figlia dell’amore (“Beautiful daughter of love”). Sunday’s performance delighted with four equally fine voices in a kind of dream cast. Essentially two duets, one half boasted William Andrew Stuckey’s robust Rigoletto and Rachele Gilmore’s angelic Gilda, while the other brought Dauphinais back on stage as the glittering foil to William Davenport’s lustrous Duke. Earlier in the act, the Duke’s jukebox aria, “La donna è mobile,” which encapsulates the social critique of Victor Hugo’s original play, “The King Enjoys Himself,” was superbly rendered by Davenport’s remarkable tenor. Kerry Wilkerson’s villain (Sparafucile) added a fifth fine vocal and dramatic performance to the act.
At the heart of Act IV of “Otello” are the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” of Desdemona. Soprano Yunah Lee positively glowed in a beautifully sensitive portrayal. While no credit was given for the afternoon’s semi-staging, some fine moments unfolded on the proscenium stage. Perhaps most memorable was Otello (Dinray Vania) silently and perniciously winding his way through the orchestra on his way to murder his innocent wife. Accompanied by the stunning solo by RSO’s principal bass, T. Alan Stewart, this was an unforgettable duet in music and movement.
Dinya Vania and Rachele Gilmore returned to the stage for what is perhaps the most famous death scene of all. The last act of “Roméo et Juliette” takes place in the crypt at the moment of Romeo’s arrival. Operas need their final duets, so Gounod’s opera has Juliet regain consciousness before Romeo dies of the self-administered poison. Vania and Gilmore delivered a performance that was both convincing and beguiling.
Opera Roanoke Apprentice Artists Mary Haugh, Alex Lyons, and, most notably, Emily King as Desdemona’s maid Emilia, were joined at points by the Opera Roanoke Chorus (Vaughn Richardson, assistant conductor) in supporting performances. An afternoon of sumptuous orchestral music and fine operatic singing.