June 23, 2021

Princeton Festival Closes 2021 Season with Evening of Opera

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Festival closed its 2021 season this past Sunday night with an “Opera by Twilight” live concert at Morven Museum and Garden. For this final concert, also livestreamed to listeners at home, the Festival presented a quartet of singers performing selections from opera, operetta and musical theater. Soprano Alexandra Batsios, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann, tenor Michael Kuhn, and baritone Stephen Gaertner, accompanied by pianist Julia Pen Ying Hanna, brought vast collective experience to a stage outside Morven’s Stockton Education Center and entertained the “podded” audience with arias and duets from both well-known and rarely-heard works.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas are among the repertory’s most accessible, with melodic arias and appealing characters. Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio dates from the height of the composer’s operatic career, with the Act II defiance aria “Matern aller Arten” being a challenge for the soprano voice. Mozart seemed to like to torture sopranos in particular with large melodic skips and vocal lines racing up and down scales, but soprano Batsios, who opened the Festival concert with this bear of an aria, had no trouble with its technical difficulties. She had a second chance later in the concert to further demonstrate her command of coloratura singing in an aria from Mozart’s 1791 Singspiel The Magic Flute. “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn” is the first aria performed by the Queen of the Night as she announces her power. Batsios well conveyed the grief of the opening recitative section, then expertly launched into running passages reaching up to “F” above high “C.” Batsios was joined in the third Mozart selection, a duet from the comedic Così fan tutte between the wealthy Fiordiligi and Ferrando (engaged to Fiordiligi’s sister) by tenor Michael Kuhn. “Fra gli amplessi” conveys the two characters proclaiming their mistaken love for each other, and Batsios and Kuhn blended their voices together well with clean intervals and the tenderness inherent in the music. Both singers demonstrated solid high registers, and Batsios in particular showed her ability to camp out on high notes for extended periods of time.

Kuhn showed his versatility in both opera and musical theater by performing a poignant selection from Kurt Weill’s 1946 musical Street Scene. Weill characterized this musical as an “American” work, fusing traditional European opera and American musical theater. Jazz and blues were well embedded into the song “Lonely House,” sung by a young member of one of the numerous families profiled from “the neighborhood.” In Sunday night’s performance, Kuhn captured a peaceful atmosphere against expertly-played complex jazz accompaniment from pianist Hanna.

Mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann easily brought life to a signature aria for her voice part. The “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen is the title character’s flirtatious warning to potential suitors that to love her will only lead to trouble. Swann sang this aria communicating well with the audience, while maintaining a slinky and subtle coyness as she reeled her suitors in. Swann and Batsios joined for another operatic favorite in the “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé. This duet is a musical conversation between the two characters as they gather flowers by a river, and the voices of these two singers flowed together well through the lush music, each with a good command of the text.

The fourth singer of the quartet presented by Princeton Festival was baritone Stephen Gaertner, who has appeared in numerous productions at the Metropolitan Opera. Gaertner is a commanding singer, particularly evidenced in the “Te Deum” aria from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. Gaertner dramatically conveyed the passion of the words, as well as the rage from the selection he performed from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. Swann, Kuhn, and Gaertner joined forces toward the end of the program for a trio from Verdi’s Don Carlo, singing with well-matched voices and effective dynamic shading. Throughout the concert, pianist Hanna easily maneuvered the diverse musical styles and showed sensitivity to all the vocal soloists.

Princeton Festival’s 2021 season was an amalgamation of in-person performances, virtual livestreams, lectures, and round-table discussions. Sunday night’s “Opera by Twilight” concert was the second operatic aria performance presented by the Festival this season and showed that the Festival clearly spared no expense in presenting first-rate talent, even if there was no full opera production this year.