Vernon’s Allison Harker joined by Aaron Durand

Vernon’s Allison Harker joined by Aaron Durand

Classical Notes: OSO showcases divas and dastards

Okanagan Symphony Orchestra brings some of opera's greatest arias to the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre.

I am fortunate in being commissioned to write both about Okanagan Symphony and also about opera (the Saturday morning screenings from The Met). And on Sunday the two genres came together.

For Divas, Dons and Dastards OSO’s conductor and music director Rosemary Thomson brought to the Performing Arts Centre a company of singers from the UBC Opera Ensemble in Vancouver.

Live opera of this calibre is virtually impossible outside major cities because of cost. For the Okanagan to enjoy a dozen fledgling professionals was a major coup for the symphony – yet another example of the creativity behind their programming.

Thomson had been living with this project for months, and even visited Vancouver for a two-day rehearsal with the cast. Even before going on stage she entertained those attending her pre-concert talk with details and anecdotes about the program. She spoke without notes for 40 minutes!

So many of the pieces were familiar, amply rewarding my all-too-recent introduction to grand opera. In fact we often hear an excerpt and think “I KNOW that,” yet having no idea whence it came. That night 22 pieces were selected from 11 operas, and Thomson guided us through the program with such exuberance that she herself became one of the performers!

One of the 12 singers, as we now know, was originally from Vernon. Allison Harker (soprano), joined by Aaron Durand (baritone), sang Mozart’s duet La ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni.

Also from Don Giovanni was Madamina sung by Peter Monaghan (bass-baritone). As the side-kick Leporello he had the delicious task of placating and then seducing the woman just abandoned by Giovanni.

Still in Mozart territory, we moved on to Cosi fan Tutte — “a ridiculous plot, but the music is so glorious” — with three pieces including the trio Soave al Vento sung by Emily Nelson (soprano), Peter Monaghan (bass-baritone) and Evanna Chiew (mezzo-soprano).  This was a wonderful piece — “sublime” was Thomson’s description — with the orchestra providing a gently flowing nature background.  There’s no question in my mind that we were hearing opera at its best.

From Puccini’s La Boheme we had Musetta’s Waltz by Taylor Pardell (soprano), Addio Donde lieta usci by Chelsea Rus, (soprano), Dunque: e proprio finita by Rus, Pardell, Tony Caruso (tenor) and Durand. They play two pairs of lovers and Thomson explained: “In opera you’ve got to fall in love quick, so that you can fall out of love, then get back together again before you die!”

The opera’s saddest moment is when Rodolfo leaves Mimì because he knows how ill she is. In his poverty he can do little to help her, hoping that his callous rejection will inspire her to find a wealthier man.

Less famous opera pieces included the Drinking Song from Hamlet (Thomas), the flower duet from Lakme (Delibes), Au fond du Temple from The Pearlfishers (Bizet) finally Glitter and Be Gay and Make our Garden Grow from Candide (Bernstein).

The highlight in the first half was the most popular opera ever, Carmen by Bizet. In Habanera Chiew told how she selects her men (while flirting with the OSO musicians), and the famous Toreador’s song was by Durand.

The audience got into the act with Can-Can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a clap-along opportunity for us, with Thomson herself dancing on the podium!

And then there was Verdi. Earlier we had the overture from The Force of Destiny,  a rousing piece and certain audience pleaser, then for the encore, all 12 singers sang an ensemble piece from La Traviata.

The season’s closing concert will be a masterworks concert Russian Gems on May 6, including the most famous concerto ever, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1.

Trivia item:  It was pointed out to me that the orchestra now has more than 50 per cent women!