The Princeton University Opera Theater Starts a New Year With Operatic Flourish
Princeton University Opera Theater brought together the late 17th and 20th centuries this past weekend with a presentation of two operas separated by 300 years, but both representative of their musical times. Conductor Gabriel Crouch drew from past and contemporary British operas in Friday night’s Richardson Auditorium performance of Henry Purcell’s 1688 Dido and Aeneas and Jonathan Dove’s 1999 Tobias and the Angel. Both operas were conceived compositionally for non-professional singers, and this past weekend’s presentations (the operas were performed both Friday and Saturday nights) called upon the wide range of performing ensembles in the Princeton area.
The music of Dido and Aeneas captures many commonly-used compositional devices of the 17th century. Mr. Crouch compiled a small instrumental ensemble fitting for the period — strings, recorders, theorbo, baroque guitar, and harpsichord. All these instruments could easily be heard from the orchestra’s position partially under the stage, and throughout the opera, vocal lines were colored by delicate textures of lightly-bowed and plucked strings. From the opening Overture, Mr. Crouch kept the music well accented and nuanced in Baroque style.
Dido is a showcase for women’s voices, and some of the University’s more exceptional female singers were heard in this production. Three central characters carry the opera’s plot — Dido, her handmaiden Belinda, and the Sorceress. As Belinda, Stephanie Leotsakos warmed up well to her role, singing comfortably in the higher register. Senior Sophia Mockler has grown musically every year of her time at Princeton, and her performance of the title role of Dido showed a rich and full sound from top register to bottom, often gracefully accompanied by Beiliang Zhu on viola da gamba and Charles Weaver on theorbo. Ms. Mockler sang Dido’s signature aria, which closes the opera, with particular drama and plaintive longing.
A vocal surprise of the evening was Saunghee Ko, who sang the role of the Sorceress. Ms. Ko has been performing in University ensembles, but showed in her performance that she is thoroughly capable of commanding a stage as a soloist. Ms. Ko was saucy and sinister, not missing a vocal step with a voice which seemed mature beyond her years. The two male roles of the opera belonged to James Walsh, singing the role of Aeneas; and Zach Levine, who played a solo Sailor. Mr. Walsh sang with charm and lyricism and Mr. Levine sang with a great deal of spirit, joined by the men of the Princeton University Chamber Choir for a rousing “ship” scene. Choruses play a key role in Purcell operas, and the University Chamber Choir, prepared by Mr. Crouch, was exact in rhythm, with close attention to dynamics and text.
London-born composer Jonathan Dove has been called one of the most significant British opera composers since Benjamin Britten. Dove composed Tobias and the Angel, based on one of the books of the Apocrypha, as a “community” opera — able to be performed and enjoyed by non-professionals. The vocal requirements of Tobias, however, were anything but amateur, and the Princeton University students were well up to the challenge.
The opera is divided into two simultaneous scenes, in Nineveh and in Ecbatana, whose characters eventually come together. A key role of Tobit was sung by seasoned professional Jacob Kinderman as a full and dramatic narrator in a role requiring a mature voice. As his son Tobias, who carries the key plotline of meeting an angel without knowing he is an angel, tenor James Walsh made his second appearance for the evening. Mr. Walsh fit the youthful role well, and was very comfortable with Dove’s contemporary and often difficult vocal lines. In the role of Angel, initially masquerading as a “stranger,” counter-tenor Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen revealed why he is yet another Princeton University musician well on his way to a professional career when he graduates. Mr. Nussbaum-Cohen sang with lyricism and vocal strength (with particular warmth in the upper register), and showed that his recent appearances in Europe have given him all the more stage presence. Gabriel Crouch wisely incorporated another talented counter-tenor on Princeton’s campus by obtaining permission from the composer to cast the role of the demon Ashmodeus for Michael Manning, who was deliciously spindly and ominous as he wended his way through the characters, casting evil about.
The women’s roles called for very strong voices, and the students who sang were well up to the task. Stephanie Leotsakos sang with a full voice, but was a bit hard to hear over the orchestra at times. Varshini Narayanan and Alyson Beveridge also sang with strong voices, in Ms. Narayanan’s case for a role that was extremely dark. Choral commentary on the action was provided by an ensemble of American Boychoir and Princeton Girlchoir singers, well trained by Fred Meads and cleverly dressed as fish and sparrows by costume designer Marie Miller. This production spared no expenses in costuming, with bright colors contrasting well with Dale Simon’s geometric set design.
The production of these operas was a dynamic way to start the new year, and the University seniors in the cast in particular had a great event to launch their final semester.