Monday, May 17, 1999

May Festival merits standing ovations

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the third night in a row, the Cincinnati May Festival audience was on its feet Saturday, this time at the conclusion of the final act of Puccini's Turandot. And for the third night (the second in Music Hall), the stage was graced by magnificent operatic voices, backed by the superb May Festival Chorus.

        If Turandot was the crowd-pleaser — with its familiar “Nessun dorma” stirringly sung by tenor Keith Olsen — the first half of the program was an introspective contrast that highlighted the chorus.

        The eclectic grouping of six works from Ives to Schoenberg continued music director James Conlon's theme of looking back at the century, this time to the great wars.

        The text of Schoenberg's A Survivor From Warsaw (1947), narrated by Jonathan Eaton, professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, was based on stories from the Warsaw Ghetto. Staccato interruptions in German signified the Nazi sergeant, and it closed with the Hebrew chant “Shema Yisroel,” sung by the men of the chorus.

        Sometimes using sprechstimme (half speech/half singing), Mr. Eaton's portrayals were vivid and dramatic; the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed the 12-tone music well, providing a gripping backdrop.

        Orchestra and chorus struck a stunning balance in Kodaly's Psalmus Hungaricus, which featured tenor John Aler. (There was no children's chorus, a program misprint.)

        The work was composed after World War I, and its emotional text (beautifully sung in Hungarian) paraphrases Psalm 55. Mr. Aler captured its powerful imagery perfectly, but the glory in this piece was in the moods summoned by the disciplined chorus, prepared by Robert Porco. Mr. Conlon was an alert leader; a memorable moment occurred in an orchestral interlude for harp (Gillian Benet Sella) and orchestra soloists.

        The chorus also shone in Corigliano's “What I Expected Was ... ” on a poem about war by Stephen Spend er, and in two Ives works: Lincoln, the Great Commoner and Majority (sometimes called The Masses).

        The chaotic sound world of Ives is pure Americana — from patriotic songs to hymns — usually heard all at once. The chorus soared out of thick orchestral accompaniment well. It was almost humorous when Majority, which had angular themes and percussive chord clusters, ended on a major chord.

        The CSO took the spotlight in Martinu's Memorial to Lidice (1943). Mr. Conlon led an intensely moving reading, which at one point featured a beautiful hymn for winds.

        In the second half, the audience of 2,368 sat up when American tenor Mr. Olsen (Calaf) strolled out for his big moment in Turandot's Act III. (Acts I and II were performed in the previous two seasons.) His “Nessun dorma” was relaxed and romantic, with thrilling high notes.

        The rest of the cast was a knockout, too. The entrance of Ruth Falcon, returning in the formidable role of the Princess, was hailed by fanfares from the balcony. A true dramatic soprano, her voice cut through the rich Puccini textures with power, focus and spine-tingling vibrato.

        Soprano Paula Delligatti painted a touching portrait of Liu, including her aria “Tu, che di gel sei cinta” (You who are encircled by ice). As Timur, the bass John Cheek was, as always, wonderfully expressive. An excellent trio — Victor Ledbetter, Mr. Aler and Thomas Baresel — sang Ping, Pang and Pong.

        The chorus added magnificent drama to the scene, and Cincinnati Boychoir (Randall Wolfe, director) added a sweet offstage moment from the balcony. Mr. Conlon whipped up tension and glowing colors in the orchestra, and the act closed brilliantly with the full power of his forces.

        Those who came early were treated to a witty and wonderful recital of songs from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch by the fine American soprano Benita Valente with pianist Thomas Muraco.


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