N.C. Symphony Finale Hosts Pancella and Powell

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Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?
By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

April 30, 2010 – Meymandi Concert Hall, Progress Engergy Center, Raleigh NC

The N. C. Symphony’s opera excerpts program Friday night could easily have been a serious, formal affair. But conductor Grant Llewellyn and vocalists Phyllis Pancella and Stephen Powell were determined to provide the opposite, turning this season’s final classical series concert into a convivial, fun-filled evening that likely made a number of converts to opera by concert’s end.

That’s because the two soloists proved opera need not be stodgy or old-fashioned, giving each aria and duet well-defined character and detailed staging, conveying appropriate mood and telling action. Llewellyn offered attentive, vibrant collaboration, balancing the orchestra well under their singing. All three engaged the audience through warm and humorous introductions to the selections.

Stephen Powell filled the hall with his free, open baritone, taking stage with impressive swagger in the toreador aria from “Carmen” and causing the audience to hold it’s breath with his hushed, heartfelt floating of the hymn to the evening star from “Tannhäuser.” Mezzo Phyllis Pancella demonstrated her stage savvy right away, employing sinuous gestures and seductive glances in Carmen’s “Habanera,” later confirming her vocal range in the exuberant young male composer’s aria from Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”  (donning Powell’s tux jacket for added effect).

Together, the singers proved a synergic pairing, confidently playing off each other with subtle, telling involvement. They made the seemingly simple “La ci darem la mano” from “Don Giovanni” a little one-act of coyness and enticement, while investing the three big excepts from “Sweeney Todd” with such comic timing and knockabout physicality, one would assume they’d been playing the whole show for years (and maybe they should).

On his own, Llewellyn fired up the orchestra for vigorous readings of the sensuous “Bacchanale” from “Samson et Dalila” and the glorious Prelude to Act III from “Lohengrin.” Llewellyn also offered rarities in the form of the mesmerizing witches’ dance from Puccini’s “Le Villi” and the atmospheric twilight of Delius’ prelude to “Irmelin.”

A lengthy duet from “Samson et Dalila” didn’t sustain enough interest out of context and programming Powell’s emotional “Rigoletto” aria as the last vocal selection after Pancella’s delightfully upbeat finale from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” made for anti-climax. But the encore, “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” with its tender final high notes perfectly suspended, sent the audience into further frenzied huzzahs for all participants.

[originally published in the News & Observer, May 2, 2010]