80th BrAVA Anniversary Concert

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 1, 2015

Angela Meade
Angela Meade  

Opera fans in sleek gowns and satin-lapel tuxes floated around the Kimmel Center lobby for the Academy of Vocal Arts 80th BrAVA Anniversary Concert. But, however buffed and tony, the event is artistically earnest in raising funds to continue its legacy of training the finest emerging opera stars for a new generation. It carries on the visionary legacy of AVA founder Helen Corning Warden, who established the peerless vocal conservatoire, during the depression that provides tuition-free training for talented singers to learn every aspect of opera artistry.

The gala concert features the current roster of AVA resident artists and opera star alums who were back in Philly to pay tribute to the institution and Christofer Macatsoris, AVA musical director and conductor since 1976. Maestro Macatsoris was on the podium in Verizon Hall in front of his full AVA orchestra for a dazzling deep field evening of opera solos and scenes of Italian, German, French opera and even a couple of Cole Porter numbers.

Among the many concert highlights~

Macatsoris usually conducts the orchestra at AVA studio setting of the Helen Corning Warden Theatre , but it was immediately apparent that it is just as masterfully detailed and spiking through Verizon Hall. The orchestral thrust in this hall was right out of the gate with Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham's ...'In questa reggia' from "Turandot." Graham (in drop dead opera couture) has a voluptuous voice that engulfs, she also played the scene, setting the tone that this concert would not have cold recital feel.

Mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera followed (in a dazzling tight gold leaf sequined floor-length) for 'Acerba volutta' by Francesco Cilea and though she seemed underpowered at first, she unleashed an electric performance. Later in the crime of passion scene from Bizet's "Carmen" Herrera and lyric tenor Richard Troxell just burned with vocal chemistry and dramatic fire.

Tenor James Valenti mesmerized with his volcanic interpretation of his tragic aria 'E Lucian le stelle' from Puccini's "Tosca." In the second half of the program Valenti and soprano Marina Costa-Jackson (a 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions finalist) spelled vocal magic in 'Teco io sto..Gran Dio!' From Verdi's "Un ballo in maschera." Valenti has a stealth passagio and Costa-Jackson's is at the height of technical skill and passionate delivery.

Baritone Jared Bybee and tenor Shawn Mathey seemed in their own vocal zones for the famed 'Au fond...' mens' duet in Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" but when they sang together their voices entranced. Mathey displayed his skill with operetta in a song by Franz Lehar. Jan Cornelius's silvery soprano was lyric perfection in Mozart's '...Dove sono' aria from "The Marriage of Figaro."

When Meade and tenor Stephen Costello entered it seemed like history in the making. Both AVA alums are now international stars and have had huge recent successes at the Met. Their combined vocal prowess is in full bloom in ..'.scena e duetto' from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." Soprano Angela Meade captivated with Catalani's ...'Ne andro lontana' (think DIVA) one of the most technically demanding arias in the repertory.

Bass-baritone Burak Bilgili has a a most sardonic delivery on 'Le veau d'or from Gounod's "Faust," then in the second half for 'La calunnia' in Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia" however animated he gets, Bigili's basso is a sonorous vault that never hits bottom. At the other end of the scale tenor Taylor Stayton also charmed the audience surfing those tenor tremolos and razor-sharp Rossini roulades in ...'Cessa di piu registere.' Not to be outdone, soprano Maria Aleida (in a knockout black lace bodice, egg-shell tulle gown) sang the glass shattering F notes of Offenbach's doll from "Les contes d'Hoffmann' with sublime comic flair.

The emotional highlight of the evening was Costello's rendition of Vincent Youmans' poetic Depression era tune "Without a Song." Costello leaned over the rail right next to Maestro Macatsoris in sheer artistic respect and appreciation for his teacher and fellow artist. All of the singers flooded the stage for a rowdy encore of Verdi's famous drinking song from "La Traviata." And indeed, we were all drunk on opera by this sparkling finale.

The 80th BrAVA concert was performed March 27 at Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street in Philadelphia, PA. For information or tickets for upcoming performances, call 215-735-1685 or visit www.avaopera.org

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.