The Redlands Opera Theatre closed their 2013-2014 season with a charming program entitled “The Bard Meets Opera.” The selections of music were inspired by the works of William Shakespeare. Some of the pieces were directly taken from his writings (Othello, Macbeth) while others were an adaptation and updating of the plots (Kiss Me, Kate!, West Side Story.) By including works from opera, musical theater and charming art song on the program, the performers were able to show a variety of singing styles and the range of their talents. While translations or introductions to set up the opera scenes would have been welcome, the singers did a nice job of expressing the words and emotions of these gems from the standard repertoire.
Many of the performers are familiar faces in the Southern California opera scene. Each member of the cast was garbed in Renaissance clothes to build atmosphere, and the entire program was accompanied by pianist Ed Yarnelle, who brought all the colors of the orchestra alive through the keyboard. It was a delight to hear him invest his musical talents in each song and aria. The company is also fortunate to have him as a member of their advisory board.
Tenor Andrew Bennett, whose voice seems to improve on each hearing, sang arias from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette (“Ah, lève-toi, soleil!”) and Verdi’s Macbeth (“O figli , o figli miei”) with a tender and well-sculpted tone and strong emotive qualities. This aria was a pleasant reprise from his work in a full production of Macbeth with the Independent Opera Company in 2012. But some of Bennett’s finest singing was heard in Purcell’s art song “If Music Be the Food of Love,” which flowed effortlessly. It was a distinct pleasure to hear this Elizabethan favorite sung with such mastery.
Baritone Jay Stephenson sang an impassioned “Credo in un Dio crudel” from Verdi’s Othello, which translates to, “I believe in a cruel God.” In this aria, Iago shows his true evil character after crafting a plan to get back in Otello’s good graces by using Cassio as a catspaw. The aria was a good match for Stephenson’s swagger and vocal intensity. The work showed his wide range of acting skills against his work in the latter part of the program, presenting the humorous and seemingly alcohol-infused rendition of “O vin, dissipe la tristesse” from Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet.
Mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond used her superb vocal and dramatic powers in a haunting rendition of “Desdemona’s Song,” from Korngold’s Four Shakespeare Songs, Op. 31. The tragic love and longing poured out in honey-colored tones and nuanced phrasing, making this work one of the highlights of the program. Bond later shifted gears to sing Romeo’s Cavatina from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. In this touching and impassioned scene, Romeo pleads his case to Cappelio, and offers peace through the joining their families with Romeo’s marriage to Giulietta. Romeo pleads to Capellio that even if he did kill his son, only fate is to blame. By marrying Giulietta, Capellio will have another son in Romeo. Bond brought another of Korngold’s charming art song gems, “O Mistress Mine” to the second half of the program.
The afternoon also included the opera company’s founders, lending their voices again to the season’s programs. Soprano Tiana Dye offered varied selections by tackling the mezzo favorite “So in Love” from Porter’s Kiss me Kate, showing obvious passion for the song, and “It was a Lover and His Lass” from Quilter’s Five Shakespeare Songs, which better showed the soprano qualities of her voice. This offered quite a contrast from her duet with Jay Stephenson in Verdi’s Macbeth (“Ora di morte e di vendetta”) where the pair sang of carrying out their vendetta in a pivotal scene from Shakespeare’s play.
Soprano Christa Stevens sang “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s Othello, as well as joining forces with Andrew Bennett on “Ange adorable.” The program closed with Bernstein’s perennial favorite West Side Story, featuring Danielle Marcelle Bond and Christa Stephens in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Bond’s ability to switch into a full-throated musical theater style was a poignant contrast to Stephens’ light and sweet, vibrato-rich soprano.
This afternoon of wonderful contrasts in music and voices was an excellent celebration of Shakespeare’s gifts for plot and drama. May his muse continue to live on and inspire us for future generations of storytelling and song.