Back Bay Chorale opens 40th season with mixed jumble of Verdi and Wagner

November 4, 2013 at 1:03 pm

By Angelo Mao

Scott Allen Jarrett led the Back Bay Chorale Sunday in opera excerpts of Verdi and Wagner.

The Back Bay Chorale inaugurated its 40th season with an uneven but enjoyable program of Wagner and Verdi Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre. The opera selections offered were a dizzying mishmash of popular choral highlights and show-stopper arias. The Back Bay Chorale and Orchestra navigated this terrain with verve; the featured artists, despite some stunning moments, not so much.

Wagner took up the first half of the concert, which opened with three anachronistically ordered Tannhäuser selections: the “Entrance of the Guests” scene, followed by the soprano aria “Dich teure Halle,” and then the overture. The Back Bay Chorus found the right balance between power and nobility in the first Tännhauser excerpt, and soprano Karen Slack delivered “Dich teure Halle” with ease. The highlight of the Wagner section was conductor Scott Allen Jarrett’s reading of the Tännhauser overture, which struck a fine balance between the slow nobility of its main theme and its kinetic auxiliary themes.

The closing scene of Die Meistersinger von Nümberg ended the Wagner half and featured a disappointing appearance by tenor Corey Nix. As Walther, Nix had an appropriately beatific expression on his face, singing his valedictory song after his apprenticeship under the eponymous master-singers. But his tenor, though possessing warmth and penetration, was wavery and simply ran dry on high notes.

The second half of the program was a diverse Verdi program, beginning with two selections from La forza del destino, continuing with excerpts from the first act of La traviata, “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, and ending with the Act II finale to Aida. The Back Bay Orchestra zipped along under Jarrett’s rousing reading of the Forza overture before soprano Karen Slack, looking visibly nervous, took the stage for “Pace, pace mio Dio.”

Slack had stepped in last-minute for soprano Michelle Johnson, who withdrew due to illness, so her tension was understandable. But it was also unwarranted, at least for the Forza selection: her rendition was committed and shattering and stood out as a highlight of the evening. Her voice is a gleaming lyric soprano; her performance imbued drama into every phrase and movement

With the Traviata excerpts, however, the afternoon began to fray. The first act was presented, minus a duet, plenty of recitatives, and an aria; the result could safely be called disorienting. “Sempre libera,” which concluded the Traviata excerpts, was marred by false starts and missed lines. Slack was also on shakier ground when it came to the florid writing, smudging the turns and lunging to attack the downward scales.

The chorus, on the other hand, sang the part of Violetta’s friends with clarity and great precision, making them unusually lucid party guests. The choral “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, which came next, was delivered rather too quickly. It took the final scene from act II of Aida to bring things back around. Here, sans soloists, the chorus and orchestra, especially its fine trumpeters, delivered the goods. Encoring the afternoon was a brisk but powerful rendition of the “Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s Il trovatore.

Back Bay Chorale’s next concert will be March 8 with a program featuring  music of J.S. Bach and works commissioned by the Chorale over the last 40 years.

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