Tonight the Syracuse Opera presented “Arias at the Armory: a Mozart Anniversary Celebration” outside in downtown Syracuse. The program, commemorating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthyear, comprised arias and ensembles drawn from the composer’s concert and operatic repertory, presumably to entice new patrons to the opera’s regular season, which kicks off in late October with Bizet’s Carmen.
But to me, the whole production just came across as lazy. Some of the crowd-pleasers were there, but the hits were either conspicuously missing or, even worse, sung in awkward English translation. Richard McKee, artistic director, explained before the operatic selections that some would be sung in English to facilitate comprehension – but I’m sure the first-time listener would have benefited more from an English performance of the Zauberfloete trio “Soll ich dich Teurer, nicht mehr sehn” rather than the clumsy sung translation of Papageno’s charming, folksy introductory aria, “Der Vogelfaenger bin ich ja.” The other five selections performed in English suffered similarly laughable fates at the hands of the translation gods.
Programming and original language issues aside, it seemed that the Syracuse Opera ensemble left their A game at home for tonight’s performances. The only cast member who consistently fared well was bass-baritone Daniel Gross, who commanded the audience’s attention in each vignette with his assured presence and strong, steady tone. Though he occasionally toed the line between singing and barking, he usually did so in the forgivable name of character.
The young mezzo Ivy Gaibel had a rocky start with “Laudate Dominum,” from Vesperae Solennes de Confessor, but recovered nicely throughout the program, giving her best performances when portraying a character. Her “Voi che sapete” was competent and endearing, by far her best showing of the night. Despite some intonation issues, she held her own amid the din of competing voices in the final ensemble from Cosi fan tutte.
Soprano Lauren Skuce was, for me, a bit too precious in her phrasing. She seemed indulgent and somewhat disengaged – bored, even – in her performance, and at times unwittingly revealed to the audience just how hard she was working to get through a phrase. That said, she possesses a nice tone and some lovely notes on the top end of her range, though she shouldn’t rely on those attributes alone to carry her performances.
Tenor Robert Allen and bemulleted baritone Jimi James were neither particularly remarkable nor offensive. James had the unfortunate lot of singing most of his selections in English, which, frankly, stacked the odds against him. His one chance at redemption, the duet “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, came across without a clear picture of his character or sensitivity to phrasing. When I first looked over the program, I immediately wondered at the absence of the tenor staple, “Dies Bildnis” from Die Zauberfloete, but, given Allen’s rather anemic performance throughout the program, it’s probably better that he let it be. His best work came in the evening’s ensemble numbers.
McKee, in addition to his role as emcee for the program, contributed a few low rumblers as Sarastro in the Zauberfloete trio and performed an aria from Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail. I’m hoping this was because the regularly engaged bass is off on a fabulous Mediterranean holiday with his trophy girlfriend and couldn’t take time from his packed summer touring and traveling schedule to drop in on Syracuse…but somehow I don’t think that’s the case. However, it’s probably also true that an artistic director probably doesn’t put in much time onstage during the regular season – often for good reason.
I’m not going to write off any of these singers just yet. The real test will come in October when these singers take to the stage in an actual production. Yes, tonight was a performance - but it can be difficult to perform all-out when you’re just doing excerpts and arias, especially when that performance takes place on a foldout truck-stage in a noisy downtown square. Overall, I wasn’t blown away, but I wasn’t hugely disappointed either. I’m actually really looking forward to the Syracuse Opera’s first production in a few months. I’m hoping the company will decide to bring Syracuse the very best it has to offer.