William and Judith Scheide could spend their summers in the cool environs of New England, as many Princetonians do, escaping the New Jersey heat. Instead the Scheides have not only chosen to remain in the humidity with the rest of us but also to make the summer months more musically enjoyable. For the past four years, the Scheides have sponsored a concert taking advantage of the singers and instrumentalists in town performing with other ensembles. This past Thursday night, members of Opera New Jersey’s summer roster were joined by the New Jersey Symphony and led by conductor Mark Laycock in a rousing performance of 19th-century powerhouse opera arias, all made possible by the Scheides.
Opera New Jersey strutted out some of its best soloists from this summer’s productions for the concert of operatic excerpts at Richardson Auditorium, with soprano Erica Strauss, tenor Rafael Dávila and bass Young-Bok Kim delving into the Golden Age of German and Italian Romantic opera. Focusing primarily on the works of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, this “Midsummer Celebration” easily achieved its goal of bringing the audience to its feet with brass, percussion, and rich orchestration, not to mention great singing.
Conductor Mark Laycock acknowledged the importance of the chorus in 19th-century opera by starting the concert with a Wagnerian bang in a chorus from Tannhäuser. Opera New Jersey compiled a choral ensemble of the company’s “emerging artists” and local professionals who easily captured the sweep and grandeur of “Freudig begrüssen wir die edle Halle,” Tannhäuser’s “Entrance of the Guests.” This being Wagner, brass played a large role, beginning with clean trumpets from an offstage balcony.
Mr. Laycock alternated Wagner with Verdi in programming the evening, but given the musical weight of both composers, there was little difference in the hefty orchestration and demanding vocal requirements among the operatic excerpts. The chorus reined in its sound a bit as the concert progressed, with the sectional basses and altos coming across as the most unified. In the opening Verdi selection from Otello, four character soloists sang from the chorus, most notably bass-baritone John Arnold, with all singers clearly feeling free to unleash a full magnitude of sound.
Mr. Dávila, heard with Opera New Jersey this past summer in Il Trovatore, showed his more lyrical side in his duet with Ms. Strauss — Verdi’s “Love Duet,” also from Otello. Although these two singers could have demonstrated more chemistry and sparks between each other, both brought out the sweetness of the duet, with Ms. Strauss especially floating her sound in the top register. The singers were well complemented by cellist Stephen Fang’s graceful solo.
Mr. Laycock also ventured into the very familiar repertoire, with Wagner’s “Prelude to Act III” of Lohengrin, a selection from Wagner’s Götterdammerung and Verdi’s “Triumphal March” from Aida. A dark and rich English horn, played by Andrew Adelson and subtly accompanied by timpani marked the start of the Wagner excerpt, combined with a lean extended sectional cello solo. Mr. Laycock drew out well the “sunrise” of the “Dawn,” aided by chipper wind solos. The familiar triumphal tune was played with nuance by the brass, and a bit of Verdian gypsy could easily be heard from the winds.
Arrigo Boito’s “Prologue in Heaven” from Mefistofele fit into the theme of the evening with Boito’s role as librettist for some of Verdi’s operas. Although the orchestral “Prelude” was a bit staid, Young-Bok Kim got things rolling as Mefistofele, exuding the confidence of the part and a menacing vocal swagger. Mr. Kim clearly has no trouble commanding a stage in ominous and intimidating roles, and brought the audience right into his world. Mr. Kim was joined in this extended scene by the adult chorus as well as a children’s chorus representing the “Cherubini.” Prepared by Fred Meads and singing from the balcony, the children’s chorus easily handled some very quick “patter” passages of words and held their own well in a section of cross-metered music with the orchestra and other chorus.
Thanks to the generosity of the Scheides, the Princeton musical summer season has been extended right to the edge of July, and the established organizations of Opera New Jersey and New Jersey Symphony, as well as the two choruses, were able to collaborate to create something entirely new and thoroughly enjoyable to the audience. The opportunity to provide more work to musicians in the summer also made this concert more relevant to the community and strengthened Princeton’s role in the New Jersey artistic scene.