Opera loves its kings and queens, and royalty has been forever enchanted by the art form, notably as patrons. The longstanding affinity was explored by Opera at Florham in a concert, “The Royalty of Opera,” April 2 at the Mansion at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison.
Four up-and-coming soloists — soprano Toni Palmertree, bass-baritone Yue Wu, soprano Courtney San Martin and tenor Matthew Cerillo — sang the technically challenging selections with solid technique and well-supported voices.
The first half featured a collection of arias and duets from opera scenes. This was followed by a lighter second half of various musical theater ensembles and song repertoire.
Master of ceremonies Mariana Karpatova introduced each work with running, easygoing commentary that included biographic details and historical context. Educational recitals and concerts are at the heart of Opera at Florham, founded in 1982 as an extension of FDU’s music department. The historic Lenfell Hall — which is adorned with oil paintings, marble fireplaces and brass chandeliers — has hosted the organization’s events for more than 40 years.
Piano accompaniment was by the company’s artistic director, Mary Pinto. She opened the second half of the concert with an expressive solo featuring selections from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 28, that examined the moodier shades of the “Pastorale” with attentive, sustained legato and pedal work.
Palmertree sang the program’s meatiest operatic arrangements — royal-themed works by Italian opera composers Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi — in superb technical command, floating from coloratura to dramatic to spinto with ease.
Donizetti was particularly inspired by royalty. Although not a trilogy, his “Three Queens” operas from the 1830s — “Anna Bolena,” “Maria Stuarda” and “Roberto Devereux” — portrayed royal figures within the English monarchy.
Palmertree sang the prologue romanza “Com’é bello” from Donizetti’s “other” queen opera, “Lucrezia Borgia,” about the Italian noblewoman from the House of Borgia. The depth and power of her flexible, supple voice and her technical ease with ornamentation was on full display.
Her “Tacea la notte” aria from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” showcased a well-supported chest voice with a bright, ringing top and ample expression. In “Tu che le vanità conosce” from Verdi’s grand “Don Carlos,” she was fully immersed in Elisabetta’s passionate, intense theatrical language as the suffering heroine.
Her second half was rounded out by a saucy, cabaret-style “Toothbrush Time” by William Bolcom and a soulful “An April Day” by Florence B. Price.
Wu’s resonant lyric bass was well matched to the royal arias of Verdi’s lighter companion roles. He gave a fully dramatized reading of Ferrando’s small but memorable narrative aria “Di due figli vivea padre beato” from “Il Trovatore.” His “Come dal ciel precipita” from “Macbeth” displayed the deeper profondo timbres of Banquo’s powerful aria.
In the second half, Wu sang sensitive, tender interpretations of two unnamed traditional Chinese songs in his native tongue, tinged with melancholy, remembrance and nostalgia.
He sang a mannered Figaro in “Cinque … dieci … venti,” the opening duet of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” against San Martin’s Susanna, who showed a stylish middle range and a top with firm sweetness well attuned to the soubrette role. She made easy work of the lighter Mozart repertoire, fresh from singing Zerlina with the Light Opera of New Jersey.
Her solo in the second half — “Show Me” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe from “My Fair Lady” — was full of poise and athletic physicality.
She co-sang Mozart’s Donna Anna in clean, strident phrasing against Cerillo’s Don Ottavio in the opening duet “Fuggi crudele fuggi,” from “Don Giovanni.” In a theatrical gesture, she laid a men’s jacket on the stage floor to symbolize her character’s slain father, Il Commendatore.
Cerillo’s lyric tenor — on the light, small, sweet leggiero side with nice musicality — was best suited to Mozart’s repertoire such as “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” Tamino’s lovesick aria from “Die Zauberflöte,” which he colored with pleasant undertones.
His carefree Duke in “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” dipped into the heavier, dramatic range of his voice.
He closed the show on a literal high note with plenty of squillo in a playful, charismatic rendition of “O sole mio,” the popular Neapolitan song by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi.
For more on Opera at Florham, visit operaatflorham.org.
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