Opera Bits and Pieces, Gently Scrambled

07.07.10
Bramwell Tovey
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

“Opera is, by and large, all about the world of fiction,” the conductor Bramwell Tovey announced from the podium shortly into a concert by the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday evening. In part he was referring to the evening’s program, “La Dolce Vita,” a collection of popular arias and pleasant instrumental knickknacks gathered mostly from French and Italian operas.

Mr. Tovey, in his droll, avuncular way, was also making a more practical point: Since the order of the pieces in the concert was changed, the printed program was now largely fictitious as well. Pay attention to the announcements, he gently advised, lest you wake from a brief nap to think you’re hearing something you already missed.

Fat chance. The concert offered a substantial lure in the form of Nicole Cabell, a stellar soprano making her Philharmonic debut. And the playing on offer was simply too vibrant and absorbing to allow for drowsiness, blazing heat outdoors notwithstanding.

You can be tempted to view Summertime Classics, the series over which Mr. Tovey has presided since it was founded in 2004, as a pops offering. Don’t. True, Rossini’s Overture to “La Cenerentola” and the ballet music Gounod wrote for a Paris Opera production of his “Faust” constitute lighter fare than the Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler works that make up the orchestra’s core programming.

But when you hear such pieces played with the expressiveness and effervescence they had on Tuesday, you could only wonder why these works don’t play a bigger role in the Philharmonic’s standard routine. The unostentatious eloquence of the bassoon and clarinet in the Rossini, the grandiose brasses and rhythmic sparkle of the Gounod, the poised string soloists in Puccini’s Intermezzo from “Manon Lescaut” and the gorgeous English horn in Massenet’s ballet music from “Le Cid” would measure up anywhere they were encountered.

Ms. Cabell, adorned in a different gown for each half of the program, was consistently alluring, her bright, creamy sound deployed with a beguiling ease. If she missed a scintilla of gravitas in Mozart’s “Dove Sono,” among the operatic repertory’s greatest treasures, she still provided richness and ample heart.

In Gustave Charpentier’s “Depuis le jour” (from “Louise”), the Jewel Song from Gounod’s “Faust” and Donizetti’s “Prendi, per me sei libero” (from “L’Elisir d’Amore”) Ms. Cabell was ideal, with an attentive partner in Mr. Tovey. Warmly received throughout, Ms. Cabell drew the audience to its feet with her encore, Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” (from “Gianni Schicchi”).