Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack as Carmen and tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson as Don José in Carmen at Opera Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia)

by Michael Caruso

Valentin Radu and the Camerata Ama Deus performed “Sparkling Baroque” Friday, April 20, in the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill. The program featured music by Corelli, Leclair, Vivaldi, Marcello and Tartini. The concert drew an audience that wasn’t large in size but that responded to the playing with enthusiasm.

The Romanian-born Radu is a master at assembling programs that combine the familiar “greatest hits” of the Baroque era, roughly from about 1600 to nearly 1750, with the occasionally overlooked gems of the repertoire that deserve regular if not frequent hearing in concert. Alongside well-known concerti by Antonio Vivaldi, who forms a trio of popular composers of the era along with J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel, Radu included concerti by the less-well-known Jean-Marie Leclair, the less-well-known Marcello brother, Alessandro, and the often-overlooked Giuseppe Tartini from the generation of Italian Baroque composers who followed Vivaldi.

The real surprise and delight was Radu’s addition at the start of the concert of Arcangelo Corelli’s “Sarabanda, Badinerie & Giga,” best known to Americans as part of the score George Balanchine used for his dazzling ballet, “Square Dance.” Radu and his Baroque period instruments players caught the inherent dance-quality of the music so well that one almost saw dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet spinning across the floor.

The evening’s finest performance was that given Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe in D minor, featuring soloist Sarah Davol. She offered a lovely, focused tone and exquisite phrasing in the first movement Andante, caught the mournful character of the second movement Adagio, then dashed through the closing Allegro with feisty exuberance.

ON THE ROAD

The musical forces of the Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Chestnut Hill, will take their act on the road and join up with their colleagues at Old Christ Episcopal Church in Old City on Sunday, May 6. Christ Church is dedicating its new C.B. Fisk, Opus 150, pipe organ, and the Chestnut Hillers will lend their help.

Music director Erik Meyer and St. Martin’s choristers will join forces with Christ Church’s music director, Parker Kitterman, and his singers for a Choral Evensong at 5 p.m. The musical program will include a commissioned work by Pamela Decker, Canticles by Erik Meyer, Preces and Reponses by Peter Christian, and Benjamin Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb.” Prior to the start of the service, Edward Landlin will perform a solo organ recital beginning at 4:30 p.m.

For more information call 215-922-1695 or visit www.christchurchphila.org.

‘CARMEN’

Opera Philadelphia opened its final main-stage production of the season Friday evening, April 27, with Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” A co-production with Seattle Opera and the Irish National Opera, the mounting continues in the Academy of Music through Sunday, May 6.

Although Bizet’s score for “Carmen” is among the most popular in the entire operatic repertoire, it remains a problematic opera. The “problem” is the libretto Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac presented to Bizet. While it’s undeniable that many an opera’s libretto makes little or no legitimate dramatic sense, the libretto for “Carmen” goes at least a few more steps beyond that and crosses into the blatantly offensive in its reliance on ludicrous stereotypes.

You’ve got your gypsy femme fatale seducing your naïve country boy by stealing him away from his pure-as-the-driven-snow hometown girlfriend. By the time you throw in an arrogant bullfighter and a bunch of gypsy thieves for good measure, what’s left of common sense or common decency to stop you from rushing into pointing a damning finger, once again, at those nefarious “gypsies”?

By shifting the time of the production from Bizet’s original mid-19th century Spain to the 1950s under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, stage director Paul Curran made a valiant and surprisingly efficacious effort to paint Carmen as a working woman struggling to overcome the unfair prejudices that have kept her and all women down. After all, if it’s good for the goose, why isn’t it good for the gander? All the same, you can’t avoid feeling that the full weight of society’s hypocrisy lands squarely on the back of this particular woman.

What makes this production of “Carmen” work as well as it does is its visual beauty, dramatic energy and tonal amplitude. Gary McCann’s set and costume design and Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting design combine to recreate a 1950s’ Spanish environment that looks superficially inviting but seethes with danger underneath its glossy surface. Seth Hoff’s choreography moves the pulsating crowds to and fro across the Academy of Music’s broad and deep stage with conviction and purpose. And Curran has elicited some excellent portrayals from a fine cast of singing actors/acting singers.

Although mezzo Daniela Mack’s voice seemed a tad underpowered Friday evening, she caught the caged-bird quality of Carmen with stylish sensuality. Tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson made as close to a perfect Don Jose as I’ve ever seen in an opera house. He delineated the role’s character of the hapless victim to Carmen’s charms with ever-growing insanity and sang with ringing clarity of tone and impassioned French phrasing. Soprano Kirsten MacKinnon invested good-girl Micaela with welcome spunk, and baritone Adrian Timpau rounded out the principal cast as the bullfighter Escamillo, perhaps my least favorite major role in all of opera. Yves Abel conducted the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra with panache.

For more information, visit www.operaphila.org.

ROMAN JOURNEYS

Principal guest conductor Stephane Deneve took to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra April 26-28 to lead a concert overflowing with references to my family’s ancestral home – Italy. The program opened with Hector Berlioz’s “Roman Carnival” Overture. After intermission it also featured Guillaume Connesson’s tribute to Italy, “E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare” (And the river shimmers in the valley) and Ottorino Respighi’s “Pini di Roma” (The Pines of Rome). In between came the only “outsider” – Camille Saint-Saens’ “Egyptian” Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major.

The concert displayed not just Deneve’s talents as a builder of programs, but it showcased his exemplary ability to elicit scintillating playing from the Philadelphians in a way that plays to their legendary “Philadelphia Sound.”

The Berlioz coursed with beguiling lyricism and coloristic invention. Pianist Nicholas Angelich was the dazzling soloist in the “Egyptian” Concerto and a sensitive artist in his Chopin “Mazurka” encore. The Connesson conjured up images of 1950s’ Italian movies such as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” and the Respighi set you deep into the mysteries of history among all those Roman pines.

Deneve, who has shown great admiration for the film scores of John Williams, might next follow a “local connection” to Alex North. Born in Chester, North attended both the Settlement Music School and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School of Music in New York City before heading west to Hollywood. There he composed the music for such cinematic spectaculars as “Spartacus” and “Cleopatra.” North assembled concert suites from his music for both films. What ensemble could play them more evocatively of both ancient Rome and Egypt than the “Fabulous Philadelphians”?

LYRIC FEST FINALE

Lyric Fest will close out its 15th season with a special concert featuring tenor Bryan Hymel and soprano Irini Kyriakidou on Sunday, May 6, at 3 p.m. in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square. Hymel is a 2008 alumnus of the Academy of Vocal Arts and has become one of the most sought-after singers in the international world of opera. Chestnut Hill pianist and Lyric Fest co-director Laura Ward will accompany them in a program of music by Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Boyle and operatic favorites.

Visit www.lyricfest.org.

You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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