Songs of Passion and Life

Viva Verdi, presented by Opera Santa Barbara. At the Arlington Theatre, Friday, September 29.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

Opera Santa Barbara has undertaken a unique service to the community with its new tradition of producing fall premieres in anticipation of its single-composer festivals in February. They are big, gorgeous, greatest-hits packages, and this one, a life of Giuseppe Verdi, was every bit as fascinating and satisfying as last year’s tribute to Puccini. Purists may scorn the amplification required in the larger Arlington, and aficionados of operatic staging may miss the full regalia attendant on an entire production of a single opera, but the rest of us can sit back and enjoy, safe in the knowledge that the treasured high points will be coming all night and non-stop. Maestro Valéry Ryvkin and his orchestra were in wonderful form on Friday, and the singers were ravishing, particularly Olga Chernisheva, whom many in the audience recognized from her memorable performance in 2005’s Le Donne di Puccini.

Gregory Baber struck just the right balance between magnanimity and megalomania as the composer, laughing at his own jokes and swaggering from one triumph to the next with hardly a moment’s caution. The opportunity to review Verdi’s prolific career from a personal point of view left little doubt that his was a deeply political art, sprung from the multiple historical valences of the European Romanticism of Byron, Goethe, and Victor Hugo. Indeed, like his predecessors in the English Romantic tradition, Verdi’s favorite author was Shakespeare, a garden to which he returned again and again throughout his long career. The evening served as a reminder that Verdi remains the greatest creative musical interpreter of Shakespeare, standing at the head of a long and prestigious list that includes all kinds of rivals, from Gounod and Mussorgsky to Britten and Bernstein. The evening’s first real intensity came with Jane Ohmes giving voice to Verdi’s Lady Macbeth.

Chernisheva then came onstage as Medora from Verdi’s version of Byron’s The Corsair and immediately established the powerful, passionate center from which the remainder of the evening would not stray. Verdi’s gift for melody and moodily erotic vocal acrobatics kept the audience swooning throughout the riches of Act II, which took us on a tour of the masterpieces, including Un Ballo in Maschera (upcoming in this year’s festival), Aïda, Otello, and Falstaff. By the time Jo Anne Wasserman’s Santa Barbara Choral Society joined Chernisheva and tenor Robert McNeill for the night’s finale from La Traviata, one could almost hear the popping of champagne corks somewhere in the not-too-distant future. It is going to be a lovely season.

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