Saturday, January 15, 2011

Review: Richmond Symphony

Steven Smith conducting
Jan. 15, Carpenter Theatre, Richmond CenterStage

Kelley Nassief, the versatile and well-traveled American soprano, made favorable impressions in performances with the Richmond Symphony in 2000 (Mendelssohn's "Elijah") and 2006 (Mozart's Requiem); but her burnished musicality and expressive mastery are far more evident in this weekend's "Evening at the Opera" program.

She is smartly cast in Ravel's song cycle "Schéhérazade" and arias from operas by Dvořák, Puccini and Francesco Cilea, all of which display her voice's melding of soprano brilliance with mezzo warmth and heft.

The Ravel is a showcase of the tonal nuance that the French language brings to vocal music, and Nassief luxuriated in all those luscious and piquant vowels in the first of two weekend concerts. The three songs also require close collaboration between the solo voice and orchestra; Nassief’s duet with flutist Mary Boodell in "The Enchanted Flute" was one of many instances of the singer listening to and complementing the instrumentation. Conductor Steven Smith kept Ravel's colorful and eventful orchestration reined in sufficiently to complement Nassief. It was an altogether treasurable performance.

Nassief was no less fluent and characterful in her three solo arias, "O Silver Moon" from Dvořák's "Rusalka" (which shivers my timbers like no other opera aria), "O mio bambino caro" from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" and "Io son l'umine Ancella" from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur." All three are bittersweet and yearning in character, and Nassief showed that this point on the vocal-emotional spectrum is one to which she is finely attuned.

The Richmond Symphony Chorus was featured in opera choruses by Bizet, Beethoven and Verdi. Not surprisingly, the choristers made more of the two Verdi choruses – "Va pensiero" (or the chorus of Hebrew slaves) from "Nabucco" and the "Triumphal March" from "Aïda," both fairly free-standing works – than of "O welche lust" from Beethoven's "Fidelio" and the chorus of the cigarette girls from Bizet's "Carmen," which aren't so easily detached from the music surrounding them.

The women of the chorus projected plenty of character in the "Carmen" excerpt and the full ensemble was richly soulful in "Va pensiero."

Into these vocal proceedings Smith inserted the rousing Prelude to "Carmen" (source of the "Toreador’s Song"), the Intermezzo from Act 3 of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" and the Prelude to Verdi's "La Traviata." It's always a treat to hear these pieces played at symphonic scale (i.e., with more strings than can fit into an orchestra pit), and these readings stroked all the right senses.

The program opens with the "Four Sea Interludes" from Benjamin Britten's opera "Peter Grimes." Britten composed relatively little symphonic music, so these pieces were lifted out of the narrative and strung together to form a quasi-tone poem. The tone of this poetry is dark and rather indistinct – "Peter Grimes" is a dark tale, and the East Anglian composer pictures the sea and sky as gray meeting gray; but this music's unsettled barometric pressure and introspective, sometimes claustrophobic, turbulence give it considerable, if understated, dramatic power.

Since taking over as the symphony's music director last year, Smith has made several rewarding forays into the British repertory. Making a convincing case for these moody bits of Britten were the best evidence yet that this conductor has an ear for this music, which has waited far too long for exploration by this orchestra.

The program repeats at 3 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Carpenter Theatre, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $17-$72. Details: (800) 982-2787 (Ticketmaster);