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Definitely the Opera

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by David Malahoff

The late Paul Willis, comedy writer, once created a satire of a typical day of programming on CBC Radio. In it, a spokesman for the serious music channel reveals a new plan to boost ratings. "We’ll play classical music," he says, "but just the good bits."

"Definitely The Opera," the PEI Symphony Orchestra’s November concert, was a busy afternoon of bits. There were overtures, arias and ballet and waltz music, all sourced from well-known and not-so-well-known operas.

There were stirring bits like the triumphal "March" from Aida. It riveted the audience with magisterial horns and an unrelenting, stately melody. Attention was held another way by the "Overture to Mignon" by Ambroise Thomas. This was a shy overture, coaxed out with a tender violin passage and then gently nudged forward by soft notes from French horns. The result was a melancholy melody with a trace of sweetness. (It brought to mind the British TV series Reilly, Ace of Spies and it’s haunting theme based on a Dimitri Shostakovich melody).

The orchestra nimbly played its way through seven short pieces of ballet music from Faust by Charles Gounod. Not so nimble was the "Overture to Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss, Jr. Home to one of the most famous waltz melodies; it was a surprise to find the orchestra struggling here. Alternately plodding and effervescent, the orchestra did rally to find its playful spirit towards the end of the overture.

Opera is more than overtures. It’s famous for its songs and the voices that power those songs. Sally Dibblee, soprano, was the voice of this afternoon. She was impressive in the valleys and peaks of Mozart‘s "Bella mia fiamma addio" and Puccini’s "Che il bel sogno" from La Rondine. Leaving the classics, the orchestra accompanied her in a bracing performance of "There will be a storm tonight" from Filumena, a Canadian opera that’s only a few years old. Ms. Dibblee was a roll-up-your sleeves, get-the-job-done soprano. Whichever character she had to inhabit and whatever mood was demanded, she was at ease and happy in her work. Qualities appreciated by the audience who warmed to her instantly.

But the "wow" moment came in the second half with Ms. Dibblee’s confident and passionate performance of "Sempre libera" from La Traviata. She had to sing lines requiring full-voiced power that transformed into high notes and lyrics requiring delicate phrasing and control. At times her voice was in the forefront, at others it was a full-throated instrument trading sounds with the orchestra

Her final song of the afternoon was the famous aria "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicci by Puccini. In her introduction, Ms. Dibblee described how this piece of music had been overexposed in countless commercials, selling everything from shampoo to automobiles. Then she began to sing and, with each word, she lovingly reclaimed the aria from the thirty-second purgatories of modern advertising.

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