Review by Robert Pond
Opera in Anchorage hasn’t come easy. Marita Farrell, who apparently sung for a time at the Metropolitan Opera in NY, came to Alaska and worked with Lorene Harrison in November of 1948 and by 1962, 55 years ago, opera in Anchorage, finally took hold. There had certainly been efforts by producer-directors Dewey Ehling and Elvera Voth to make a place for opera in Anchorage and, it must be said, opera in Anchorage has since become more inviting to attend as witnessed by this season and especially today’s Extravaganza.
This 55th Anniversary Extravaganza is more than just another sampling of opera’s top forty. The event is a well-balanced program that included composers Smetana, Rossini, Mozart, Bellini, Beethoven, and, the bridge from the 19th to the 20th century, Verdi and Puccini. The styles and voices were at all levels. This particular ‘sampling’ is the type of program than can also entice the reluctant attendee to include the opera in one’s ‘to attend’ list.
The staging, if you missed it, was more concertized than conventional theatre staging. The exception was the cute and entertaining scene staged by Teresa K. Pond of “Alla bella Despinetta” with the very animated performances by Kaylee Vardeman, Lisa Willis, Anna Cometa, Dustin Jorgensen, Michael Tallino, and Kyle Gantz. Of the senior talents, bass-baritone Jake Gardner with his command of opera and musical theatre experience showed more an instinctive sense of choreography than one being staged-sans his habit of stepping backwards from time to time. Especially rewarding was Mr. Gardner’ s performance of “Nemico della patria” from Andrea Chenier. The sextet plus chorus “Wer ein holdes Weib errungen” from Fidelio, Beethoven’s sole entry into operaland was worth waiting for, as was the Act I finale of Aida. Soprano Jill Gardner’s “Senza Mamma” from Puccini’s one act Suor Angelica was impressive. One can believe tenor Dinyar Vania’s bio when it refers to his exciting talent. His comfort with such an impressive list of roles was well demonstrated with his stunning performance as Calaf in singing “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s nearly finished Turandot – admittedly a personal favorite.
The Lakmé by Leo Delibes is an opera that is not performed enough outside of Lily Pons’ gymnastic recording of the “Bell Song” (Act II). But there is a lovely “Flower Duet” (Act I) which soprano Judy Berry as Lakmé and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Mallika bring to such a melodic blend. Adding to the balance of this program, Anchorage Opera Chorus did very well with Verdi’s irresistible “Va pensiero” from Nabucco and the outrageousness that is Offenbach’s “Can-Can”.
There were so many really good performances in the Extravaganza from the imported talents that were somewhat equated by Anchorage’s own talent pool that included mezzo soprano Lisa Willis, soprano Anna Cometa, tenor Dustin Jorgensen, and baritone Michael Tallino. All were under the baton of Brian DeMaris who made it look like the performers and orchestra had always worked together.
With so few performances, there may have been some in Anchorage who missed out on attending. One might wonder if General Director Reed W. Smith might bring it back, or at least something very much like the 55th Extravaganza.