Philharmonic orchestra shines with 'Operatic Love'

The Philharmonic, with guest conductor Case Scaglione, and soloists Suzanne Vinnik, a soprano, and tenor Cody Austin, opened its season on Saturday with a program titled “Operatic Love.” While the two singers, especially Vinnik, drew the lion’s share of audience attention, the star of the night was the orchestra. Of four strictly instrumental works two were, shall we say, ordinary; the others were truly exceptional.

The opener was the all-too-familiar “Triumphal March,” probably the best known piece from Giuseppi Verdi’s opera, “Aida.” Then the singers took the stage to tackle the works that bring act I of Puccini’s “La Boheme” to its romantic conclusion, the tenor aria “Che gelida manina,” followed by the soprano’s “Mi chiamano Mimi” and the passionate duet “O Soave Fanciulla.”

To summarize, the soprano comes to the door asking for a light for her candle that has gone out. In the process she drops her key and she and the tenor, Rodolfo, grope for it on the floor in the dark. Rodolfo finds instead Mimi’s cold hand and promises to warm it up for her. By the time he sings a summary of his life story he is hopelessly in love. (After all, this is opera.) Mimi responds with a brief personal sketch, a passionate duet ensues, and the two are committed to love.

Austin’s tenor is inconsistent throughout his range, and it too often lacks the weight to carry over the orchestra. Vinnik, however, has vocal power to spare as well as dramatic flair. This is a glorious voice.

Puccini composed only a handful of instrumental works. None are in the standard repertoire. His “Capriccio Sinfonico” should be. Scaglione gave it a wonderful, thoughtful reading and many of us in the audience were awed.

Verdi’s work returns to conclude the First Act with Selections from his “La Traviata,” including the exuberant drinking song best known as “Libiamo” and the soprano tour de force “E Strano” and “Sempre Libra.” Vinnik projected darkness, even sadness in the former but shifted gears effortlessly to change her mind and find herself seeking mirth and pleasure in the latter. This is a technical land mine that she navigated with confidence and complete command.

Following intermission the orchestra appeared surprised at the blistering tempo set by Scaglione to begin The Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” Clearly they were not prepared for it and it took some time for sections to catch up with each other.

Austin presented a different persona when he undertook “Il mio Tesoro.” The voice was relaxed and well suited to the lightness called for by Mozart. The highs were splendid but the very bottom of the range was still a bit forced.

Vinnik demonstrated superb control, balance, and variation in vocal color as she ended her share of the evening with “Dove sono” from “Figaro.” Applause was extended and well-deserved.

Then came the closer, and what a closer it was: the Suite from Richard Strauss’ “Der Roserkavalier.”

Scaglione had a clear vision of what this wonderful work should sound like; balances, tempos and dynamics all worked together to frame a colorful tonal picture, but it was the sensitive and even glorious interplay within the orchestra that credits the conductor. We did not see such intimacy when Scaglione was here last November to conduct a program of 20th century American music.

Special accolades to the horn section to which Strauss almost always presents special challenges, probably because his father was a brilliant hornist and it’s not a stretch to imagine the younger Strauss aiming his challenges to his father, all in good spirit of course.

Scaglione cuts an impressive figure on the podium. Follow the name; you won’t be disappointed.