Mark Gresham | 21 JUn 2019
A cool breeze wafted across the grass at Piedmont Park on Wednesday as clouds gathered from the west, offering some shade from the hot summer sun. No real threat of rain, as it turned out, for the large crowd gathered on Oak Hill to heat the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra‘s “Opera’s Greatest Hits” show, its second free open-air concert in as many weeks, and the final one of the season there.
The concert was led by the ASO’s Stephen Mulligan, whose official title was upgraded from “assistant conductor” to “associate conductor” in April. A stellar quintet of vocal soloists graced the stage for the operatic potpourri: soprano Jacqueline Echols, mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn, tenor Frederick Ballentine, baritone Nmon Ford and bass Morris Robinson.
The program opened with two selections from Bizet’s Carmen: the Toreador Song “Votre Tost!” (Ford) and the Habanera “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Vaughn). Then a little Mozart music: “Ha wie will ich triumphieren” from The Abduction from the Seraglio (Robinson).
An instrumental interlude came with “Dance of the Comedians” from The Bartered Bride by Bedřich Smetana, followed by the love scene music from Puccini’s La bohème: “Che gelida manina” (Ballentine), “Si mi chiamano Mimi” (Echols) and “O soave fanciulla” (Ballentine and Echols).
After a 20-minute intermission, the Galop Infernal (Can-Can) from Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers opened the concert’s second half.
“Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (Ballentine and Ford) followed by more Offenbach: the “Barcarolle” from Tales of Hoffmann (Echols and Vaughn). Ford and Ballentine returned to the stage to join Echols and Vaughn in singing the famous quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Then came what many in the audience were eagerly awaiting: a clutch of selections from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
For this “suite,” the ASO actually used orchestra parts for the complete Porgy and Bess, jumping between numbers, instead of a pre-packaged arrangement. The set opened with the lively Overture music, with its prominent xylophone part, which quickly made a segue into to the first song “Summertime,” sung by Echols. Five favorites from the opera followed, which gave different soloists featured moments: “I Got Plenty o Nuttin’” (Robinson), “My Man’s Gone Now” (Vaughn), “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (Ford), “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (Echols and Robinson), and the entire ensemble in the final number of the set , “Oh Lord, I’m On My Way.”
Worth noting that both Ford and Atlanta-native Robinson will perform in Cincinnati Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess this summer (July 20, 25, 27 and 28) as Crown and Porgy respectively. Robinson will portray Porgy in two performances (March 7 & 10) when that very same production comes to Atlanta Opera in early 2020, and Echols will sing the role of Clara in all five Atlanta performances (March 7, 8, 10, 13 and 15).
After the Gershwin set came the encore: the Brindisi (“Libiamo ne’lieti calici”) from Verdi’s La traviata, with Echols and Ballentine singing the parts of Violetta and Alfredo, and the other soloists singing the chorus parts, matching well the energy of the preceding final Gershwin number to cap off an exciting musical evening. ■