By Gregory Moomjy
Throughout the past year, opera companies worldwide have had to rethink how they interact with their local communities. One method is to hold concerts which not only showcase talented singers but also allows those artists to talk about their experiences as both performer and as opera lover as well as to illustrate their love for whichever city they are helping.
The Atlanta Opera offers its own take on this type of concert through a new offering now available on their streaming service. The Mezzo Extravaganza Concert was held on November 10, 2020 as part of the Atlanta Opera Big Tent Series which featured opera outdoors in the summer and fall on Anderson Field, at Oglethorpe University’s Hermance Stadium. The evening’s four singers, each literally encased in their own protective bubble, ran the gamut from international stars like Jamie Barton to local talent like Gabrielle Beteag.
Even though they were confined to their bubbles doesn’t mean that they were not able to display their acting chops. They could perfectly inhabit a diverse range of characters, whether it was the Princess de Bouillon waiting for her lover at midnight or Ježibaba casting a spell. Additionally, the evening was divided into four sections. Each began by a brief introduction from one of the performers, which simultaneously taught the audience basic information about mezzo sopranos and their role in opera, as well as part recollections of the Before Times when they could share the stage together without being cocooned in plastic. Each singer also took one aria from Carmen, the quintessential mezzo role.
The repertoire was varied, running from scene stealing arias like “Acerba voluttà” from Adriana Lecouvreur to zarzuela, art song and even musical jokes. For example, Daniela Mack and Megan Mariino performed Rossini’s Cat Duet following Jamie Barton’s rendition of Ježibaba’s spell, “Čury mury fuk” which saw her transform them into cats.
The Cat Duet wasn’t the only Rossini on the program. Daniella Mack sang “Cruda sorte.” Mack is a noted Rossini singer, as such, she knew how to exploit Rossini’s many ornaments, not just as a show of vocal brilliance but also for their dramatic effect. In fact, her attention to text was a salient feature of all her performances that evening. Her deft use of ornamentation also came into focus during her zarzuela selections where she perfectly executed the many melismas in Chapí’s “Carceleras” from Las Hijas del Zebedeo.
It’s an understatement to say that Jamie Burton can belt out the standard big mezzo hits. For instance, within the past year, she has brought down the house at the Richard Tucker Gala with “O don fatale” and then repeated the feat as part of the Met’s At-Home Gala. Here, she did the same thing with “Acerba voluttà.” However, as thrilling as that was, she followed it up with a completely internal and contemplative rendition of Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” from Gypsy Songs. Zarzuela wasn’t the only rarity on the program.
Megan Marino sang from a selection Mignon. Today this work by Ambroise Thomas is rarely performed. If people know it at all, it is typically for the coloratura showcase “Je suis Titania’ which isn’t even sung by the main character. Marino’s selection made the case to revive the opera. Her reading was incredibly delicate, as was her performance of “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond.” Incidentally, Marino included this piece in the section entitled Songs Our Mothers Taught Us, because in her case, it actually was.
I had the pleasure of seeing Gabrielle Beteag live at the Met the week before New York City shutdown when she won the National Council Auditions. I still remember her engrossing performances of “To This We’ve Come” from the Council and “Hurr Hopp Hopp Hopp,” from Hansel and Gretel. She sang the latter here and, again, it was great to see her have fun with it, even busting out some intentionally bad dance moves. She also offered compelling interpretations of Brahms’ lieder, however, the true highlight of her performances was her take on Pauline’s aria from The Queen of Spades. She imbued that piece with a forlorn quality that was very Russian. Beteag is also a native of Atlanta and a member of the Atlanta Opera’s The Glynn Studio Players.
I applaud everyone involved in this concert. On some level it felt like being part of a reunion of friends who hadn’t seen each other. The fact that these friends just also happened to be Mezzo Sopranos was just icing on the cake. Hopefully, we can see them all on stage again soon, I know they miss it and so do we.