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Westminster Choir College Begins Concert Series With "Dialogues" of Opera and Song by Purcell

Nancy Plum

With the demise of the Opera Festival of New Jersey and renovation closing Richardson Auditorium this summer, one has to look hard to ferret out classical music in Princeton. Westminster Choir College has stepped up to the plate with a series of concerts throughout the summer in a variety of venues. With a built-in musical audience derived from their summer sessions, Westminster has the opportunity to present unusual repertoire to a sophisticated and appreciative audience.

One of the first of these performances was Friday night at Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus, as part of a three-day "Songfest" of opera and song. Pianist J.J. Penna, on the faculties of both Yale University and Westminster, presented a concert version of Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneus. This production mixed student and professional performers, and although the level and depth of singing varied throughout the evening, the overall quality never slipped below a high standard.

Dido and Aeneus was composed in the late 17th century, at a time when harmony was still settling down to what we know today and opera plots were drawn from ancient stories. This opera focuses on the rise and fall of Queen Dido, usually portrayed with ceremonial regality. In Friday night's performance, Dido was played as a young innocent queen by Sara Sensenig, a vocal performance major at Westminster. All the singers seemed to take awhile to adjust to the acoustics of the Chapel; Ms. Sensenig came to life in particular in her second act dialogue with an also young Aeneus, ably sung by Westminster student Anthony Beck. As a young queen, Ms. Sensenig could convey a good dramatic relationship with an older and wiser Belinda, sung by consummate soprano Laura Heimes.

Ms. Heimes set the vocal standard for the evening with crisp ornaments and smooth coloratura. The first act light and tripping "Pursue Thy Conquest, Love" and subsequent "Haste, Haste to Town," (conducted at lightning speed by Mr. Penna) presented the sparkling singing that Ms. Heimes does best.

Seventeenth-century operas often contained references to witchcraft and sorcery, in this case a sorceress portrayed by counter-tenor Clint Williams. Mr. Williams may not have had the vocal nasty edge to match the words that might come from a female mezzo, but his high tessitura floated well above the rest of the cast. Although in concert version, Mr. Williams, Mr. Beck, Ms. Sensenig and Ms. Heimes acted their characters well among themselves.

A number of Westminster Choir College students rounded out the cast, doubling as both minor characters and members of a chorus commenting on the action. Jessica Tomsko, Julie Norman, Travis Sherwood, and Daniel Cameron all complemented the lead singers well vocally, even if their voices were a bit lighter. In their solo roles, these young singers filled the hall well, and as a quartet, they were well rehearsed and well balanced. The chorus is responsible for some of the stranger harmonic shifts in the music, which is not always easy with just four people.

To accompany the opera, Mr. Penna put together a string quartet that was well balanced for the most part if not a little heavy on the cello at times. Mr. Penna's real strength was his own harpsichord playing, with tempi that kept the arias from bogging down. The overture was cleanly played with dramatic swells by this small orchestra, and the flow of the harpsichord was continuous throughout the evening.

Dido and Aeneus is a short and sweet opera, full of what was to become the best of the Baroque era of music. This concert was followed on the next two nights by song recitals featuring music of 19th century Italy and 20th century America. This series looks to be bringing in some wonderful outside soloists and ensemble players, combining with talented Westminster students to create full musical experiences.

Westminster Choir College will present the music of J.S. Bach on July 3 at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Andrew Megill will conduct "Fuma Sacra". For information call (609) 921-2663.


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