Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Sheila and OreoBy Sheila Abrams

There are, I am told, cat people and dog people. You can’t tell by me, because I love both.

Similarly, there are opera people and symphony people. But if you love music, that distinction is superficial at best. The unity of wonderful music regardless of format was clear on Sunday, as Maestro Robert W. Butts and the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey opened their 2013-2014 season with an orchestral concert at which opera was, you might say, the guest star.

Honoring the 200th birthdays this year, of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the orchestra featured a varied program of music by the two as well as by Giacomo Puccini, an artistic heir to Verdi and Wagner. Along with two overtures and a sinfonia, there were vocal selections by sopranos Maria Alu and Maryann Mootos, tenor Kevin Peters, baritone Don Sheasley and the Sussex County Oratorio Society under the direction of Al Kopacka.

Now, about the opera people vs. symphony people issue, I have to admit that, while I love operatic music, I don’t love most operatic stories and generally find recitative—that’s the conversation parts of opera—hard to tolerate. Therefore, for someone like me, this format was ideal. Apparently along with most of the audience, I enjoyed the program enormously.

The selection of strictly instrumental music was interesting. The very short preludio to the infrequently-performed Verdi opera Attila had, as Butts commented, a very modern sound to it, rather like movie music. Its abrupt ending took the audience by surprise.

No one, however, was surprised by the lushly melodic overture from Wagner’s arguably most audience-accessible opera, Der Meistersinger. The orchestra soared, and timpanist Al Jorgenson was the unmistakable instrumental star.

The vocal selections included some pieces you would expect to find on an “opera’s greatest hits” collection. Coloratura Maria Alu (who was dazzling as the Queen of the Night in BONJ’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute last year) sparkled as Musetta in the aria Care Nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto. She was followed by the wonderful lyric soprano Maryann Mootos, who offered the iconic Willow Song and Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello.

Baritone Don Sheasley, whose rich voice gives a sense of authority to whatever role he sings, was ideal as Wotan, the ruler of the gods in Wagner’s Die Walkure, as he sang the aria Leb Wohl.

The rest of the program was Italian. It included arias from Puccini’s La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot, and from Verdi’s Nabucco, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, the Sussex County Oratorio Society featured in several selections. Joining the cast as a last-minute replacement for a soloist who was unable to appear was tenor Kevin Peters, Tamino in last year’s The Magic Flute. In what Butts said was not only last minute but Peters’ first experience singing Puccini, he offered Nessun dorma from Turandot in an absolutely gorgeous performance.

Anybody who follows BONJ or knows its conductor from other appearances knows that Robert W. Butts is a showman. Among other things, he knows how to end a concert with the audience smiling. On Sunday, that was achieved by a performance of Libbiamo, the infectious drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata. It was sung by Mootos and Peters, along with the chorus. Then, for an unbeatable encore, the other two singers, Alu and Sheasley, appeared for a curtain call and joined in a reprise, with the audience on its feet clapping the rhythm.

Symphony? Opera? Dog? Cat? All among life’s pleasures! Keep an open mind and you can’t miss.