It was different because of COVID: Palm Beach Opera held its season outdoors at the 6,000-seat iThink Financial Anphitheatre at the Fairgrounds (just one mile from the Florida Turnpike at the Southern Boulevard exit).
The first of the major American opera companies to bravely adapt to an untested venue, the troupe’s general director, David Walker, thanked the people who made it possible. It felt good to get out to see a live performance after being cooped up for so long. It was a blast. Distancing rules and mask wearing were closely observed. Everyone was civil. New friendships were quickly made.
The outdoor amphitheater was not ideal for opera, but who cared? The finest voices, with pedigrees as long as my arm, were on display here. And what voices, no doubt thrilled to have the opportunity to sing in public again. And the audience showed its appreciation at Sunday’s performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute with a standing ovation.
As a semi-staged opera there was no scenery, few props and very little action, which allowed one to focus on these glorious voices. These are some of the biggest names in opera. Tenor Matthew Polenzani, whose opening aria as Prince Tamino made for immediate gratification; we are getting the best, we told ourselves. Soprano Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night nailed every difficult high note Mozart gives her; she was lauded at London’s Covent Garden Opera for this role only last year. And soprano Janai Brugger’s sweet Pamina was perfection.
Joshua Hopkins, baritone, was a superb Papageno, likable and lovable. Peixin Chen was Sarastro, Ryan Speedo Green, The Speaker. Matthew DiBattista was Monastatos and Patricia Westley sang Papagena. The trio of Ladies shone, glittered and delighted: Shannon Jennings, First Lady; Jenny Anne Flory, Second Lady; Jennifer Johnson Cano, Third Lady. Moises Salazar was the First Priest, and Christopher Humbert Jr., the Second Priest.
For his trio of angelic sprites, Mozart used boys’ voices floating in on a Deus ex machina cloud. Here they were sung by Emily Helenbrook, First Sprite; SarahAnn Duffy, Second Sprite; and Megan Callahan, Third Sprite. A little amplification in this vast space had to be used, but in no way did it detract from the high quality delivered by all the singers.
In this amphitheater the seat rows seem to disappear out of sight beyond the horizon. The stage is a wide open space that makes the singers look almost Lilliputian. This was cleverly overcome with a centrally placed massive screen, fed by four well placed cameras, on which one sees each opera star singing their aria. Under their picture is an English translation of the German libretto, visible to all. They perform from the front of the stage, backed by the 75-piece opera orchestra and the Palm Beach Opera Chorus of 40 or more. David Stern, the conductor, kept it all together. James Robinson directed the opera.
The last performance of Flute is on Friday. Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci goes up on Tuesday and Saturday with more great opera stars: Michael Chioldi as Tonio, Ana Maria Martinez as Nedda and Robert Watson as Canio. On Wednesday you can catch Puccini’s La Boheme with Isabel Leonard as Musetta, Latonia Moore as Mimi and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. All performances start at 7.30.p.m. For tickets, call 561-833-7888 or visit the Palm Beach Opera’s Festival page.