The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) in Philadelphia presented a concert version of a rarely performed Verdi opera, Oberto, at the Haverford School's Centennial Hall. This is, in fact, the celebrated Italian composer’s first opera, and a work that took him four years to write. The evening proved a showcase for the AVA’s talented resident artists and the many musicians supporting them.

Soprano Michelle Johnson, grand prize winner of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditio
Soprano Michelle Johnson, grand prize winner of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditio

It was a treat to see conductor Christofer Macatsoris and the AVA Opera Orchestra on stage for a change. During the overture, one couldn’t help but pay unprecedented attention to the musicians charged with setting the scene for the performance. They deftly interpreted Verdi’s first overture, which began with a lilting melody before turning dramatic and haunting and culminating in a crisp march.

Presenting Oberto in concert was a wise choice. The work might have come off stiff and static if fully staged. It was also challenging for this operagoer to appreciate the inner workings of warring factions in thirteenth-century northern Italy. The universal themes to which all audiences can relate (love, death, betrayal, and sacrifice) are better defined and easier to relate to in Verdi’s later operas. In lieu of a significant connection with the story, the concert staging allowed concertgoers to lavish their attention on the music and the singers, in nearly the same way that recordings do, and to explore Oberto as a forerunner to the great works to follow. For instance, because Oberto uses (or should I say taxes) four principal singers, comparisons between Oberto and Il Trovatore were inevitable.

Oberto was a fortunate outing for many, me included, because it is the first time within the last several years attending AVA productions that I had a chance to see Michelle Johnson, an artist in her fourth year at AVA, sing a principal role. Johnson became the grand prize-winner of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The role of Leonora couldn’t have fit her better if it had been written for her. Leonora is challenging, and Johnson was well equipped to meet the demands. The role requires facility in the lower and upper registers. She has extraordinary breath control and flawless articulation. Her voice is velvety and pliant – a dulcet dream.

While watching both Johnson and mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote who sang the role of Cuniza, I was transported from the Haverford School stage to one of the major opera stages of the world. Both women are so gifted and polished, it was a cinch to imagine them already embarking on their professional careers. Vote, also a fourth-year student, has both grace and power, her top notes reaching the rafters. Yet, her power seems almost effortless, a testament to her extraordinary talent and technique.

Musa Ngqungwana, a South African bass, sang the title role on the evening I saw the show with a commanding physical and vocal presence. He became more invested in the role emotionally as the opera wore on, earning generous and deserved applause at curtain call.

Verdi demands a great deal from singers, tenors included, such as near-perfect breathing technique. Though tenor Mo El Zein, a second-year artist from Beirut, gave his all in the role of the treacherous Riccardo, ultimately it proved too challenging for his training to date. He did provide a capable tenor presence in the ensemble pieces. One wonderful outcome from seeing AVA productions is the continuity you develop with resident artists and watching them grow as they progress through the program, so I look forward to seeing this tenor develop more command over his range and more breath control.

Another is the extraordinary effect the complement of AVA artists who alternate the principal roles and who make up the opera chorus in each show. In this production, they were joined by the Opera Delaware Chorus, and the resulting sound often broke over the audience like a lush, gorgeously textured wave.

A final benefit of a company like the AVA is that operagoers can experience productions outside the customary US repertoire, which is often constrained by commercial factors. It was instructive to see Verdi’s first opera in concert and reawakens your appreciation for the numerous masterpieces to follow that we sometimes take for granted.

ObertoGale Martin reviews students of Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts in a concert performance of Verdi's Oberto.4