Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Butler ArtsFest: Angela Brown, our hometown diva, puts a "mad" program of opera excerpts over the top

Always reliable in delivering the utmost to her public, Angela Brown presented an operatic recital at the Schrott Center for the Arts Tuesday night that included strenuous grappling duets.

Angela Brown (photo: Roni Ely)
A well-attended presentation of this year's Butler University ArtsFest, "Angela Brown and Friends: Mad Scenes!" took in music from the core opera repertoire, including "Tosca," "Aida," "The Flying Dutchman," and "Porgy and Bess."

The Indianapolis-born soprano, who finished her formal education as a graduate student at Indiana University, brought to bear the savoir-faire acquired in an international career together with her well-schooled natural gifts. The "mad-scene" theme cast a wide net, including mad passion and simple anger.

She was assisted by soprano Jane Dutton, tenor Thomas Studebaker (director of Butler's opera program), baritones Darren Stokes and Galen Bower, and pianist Kelleen Strutz (a Butler alumna). All the singers and the pianist came up to Brown's professional level, so that the effect was not of a diva plus dutiful attendants.

Something of a signature role is that of the captive Ethiopian princess Aida in Verdi's opera of the same name. Brown's "Ritorna vincitor!" on Tuesday displayed her clarion high notes, warm, sustained phrasing and a range of expression supported, for example, by an impressive chest voice. About the latter quality: When she sang the lines about Aida's heart being crushed beneath the anguish of divided loyalties, you could feel the weight in the heft of her lower range.

Stokes made his first appearance of the evening as Amonasro, putting pressure on his daughter to honor her homeland by betraying her lover.  He projected nobility and anger in an intense dialogue with Brown as Aida; I missed notes of pathos and nostalgia, however.

After Brown's heartrending "My Man's Gone Now," Stokes' second appearance of the evening captured all aspects of his character, Bess' domineering lover Crown, the villain of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." This replaced the scheduled love duet of the two title characters, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." I inferred that vocal ferocity comes more naturally to Stokes; at any rate, he and Brown certainly conveyed the roughness of mutual desire when one of the parties has misgivings.

Brown also wrestled with Bower in a long selection from "Tosca" leading up to the heroine's iconic aria, "Vissi d'arte."  Bower conveyed the cynicism and practiced manipulativeness of Scarpia capably, and Brown modulated Tosca's internal conflict with mesmerizing skill. Her "Vissi d'arte" was practically the program's highlight for me, eclipsing even "Ritorna vincitor!"

The diva took an offstage rest to allow Dutton and Studebaker to perform the Erik-Senta dialogue from "The Flying Dutchman," in which it becomes clear that the young woman is a lost cause to real-life love because her infatuation with a picture of the mysterious title character rules her heart.

Dutton was convincing in the implausible fixation of Senta on the pathos of a portrait; Erik is a character in the tenor line of earnest, ineffectual lovers traceable to Don Ottavio in "Don Giovanni." As such, Studebaker put as much oomph as possible into Erik's vain attempt to warn Senta away from the doom that appears to await her with the Dutchman.

To conclude the program, Brown performed three prayers from Richard Danielpour's "Margaret Garner," a 2008 opera in whose world premiere the Indianapolis soprano starred. Particularly impressive, largely because of rising phrases in the piano accompaniment that were aptly prayerful, was "He Is By."

Maintaining the showmanship that had also marked her off-the-cuff program notes from the stage, Brown ended the recital with a lightly crooned, though semi-operatic, interpretation of "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music."

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