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May Festival concludes with stunning evening of Tchaikovsky

James Conlon

By Janelle Gelfand

Music lovers are familiar with the music of Tchaikovsky, such as his ballets and his “1812” Overture. But Saturday’s Cincinnati May Festival concert was a discovery of some sensational music by Tchaikovsky that is less well known. Some works had never before been performed in Cincinnati, music director James Conlon told the large audience from Music Hall’s stage.

For the May Festival season finale, Conlon assembled a powerhouse cast of soloists for opera scenes and arias, a Coronation Cantata and an exquisite duet for Romeo and Juliet. The performers, who included the May Festival Youth Chorus, sang the entire program in Russian.

It was an evening of noble choruses and stunning arias, as well as substantial music for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which played magnificently. The program made a dramatic crescendo from the music of operas “Iolanta,” “Eugene Onegin” and “Pique Dame” (“The Queen of Spades”) to the nationalistic fervor of Tchaikovsky’s “Moscow Cantata,” written for the coronation of Czar Alexander III.

Conlon opened with three excerpts from “Iolanta,” a fairy-tale opera about a princess who is blind from birth, but through love, eventually gains her sight. Soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya  unleashed a glorious, if somewhat uneven voice in “Iolanta’s Arioso.” (She somehow projected an impressively big, effortless voice, despite standing all evening with her arms crossed for most of her numbers.)

In the King’s Arioso, bass-baritone John Relyea superbly captured the pathos of a father who is distraught that his daughter sees only darkness. Their finale with the May Festival Chorus, tenor Rodrick Dixon and baritone Yohan Yi, was a joyous hymn of thanksgiving.

Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Duet, from an opera that the composer never realized, was a real find. Its themes are familiar, as the composer used several in his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

Pavlovskaya joined Dixon in a rapt duet, with a stunning orchestral backdrop that included two harps. Dixon sang the love theme with an ardent tenor and impressive emotional range.

More extensive excerpts from operas “Eugene Onegin” and “Pique Dame” followed. For “Onegin,” several choruses showcased the excellent May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco. The women sang with fresh, light voices in the charming “Chorus of the Maidens.” The great Act II waltz with chorus was one of the most beautiful moments of the evening, as the chorus, singing as guests at a ball, provided commentary while Conlon led the orchestra with exhilarating sweep.

Among the five soloists, tenor John Aler stood out for his entertaining rendition of Monsieur Triquet’s Aria.

Excerpts from “Pique Dame” included an enchanting, vocally well-matched duet for Pavlovskaya (Liza) and mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba  (Polina). It was delicately accompanied by piano (Michael Chertock), flutes and pizzicato strings.

Zaremba was a gripping storyteller in her Romance, and the power and beauty of her sound filled every corner of the hall. Even in the concert setting, she communicated the emotional scope of her character, ranging from despondent to defiantly carefree.

Pavlovskaya, too, was impressive in Liza’s Scene and Arioso, a haunting lament, delivered with anguished cries.

Throughout the program, the chorus summoned bright sounds and articulated the Russian texts clearly. Conlon cultivated a red-blooded sound in the orchestra, yet he expertly controlled the power of the brass. During the music’s lighthearted moments, the playing by the winds was rich with character.

The evening concluded with the Moscow Cantata, an epic work written for the coronation of Alexander III, which Tchaikovsky also conducted for the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. Here, the bass-baritone Relyea shone in a riveting monologue, as he projected a formidable presence with a voice to match. Zaremba returned with inspiring contributions, and the chorus sang with luxuriant sound.

With unflagging energy, Conlon led his forces exuberantly, sang along with every word and inspired powerful and unforgettable performances.

The audience awarded standing ovations at the end of each half, and stayed for the traditional singing of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” to mark the end of another May Festival season.