Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

February 22, 2017

A Life in Opera – Celebrating Leontyne Price

Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
February 18, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Othalie Graham
To honor Black History Month and the recent 90th birthday of trailblazing African-American soprano Leontyne Price, Maestro Kevin Rhodes and his soloist, Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham, devised an imaginative program of excerpts from operas associated with Price’s distinguished career, highlighting some unfamiliar fare by famous composers.

There was also much familiar fare, beginning with the arias “Ritorna Vincitor” and “O Patria Mia” from Verdi’s “Aida,” a favorite role on the opera stage for both Price and Graham, who invested the first aria with dramatic ardor and the second with tender poignancy. Between arias Rhodes and the SSO presented the rarely heard “Sinfonia,” a ten-minute overture which Verdi composed for “Aida” but ultimately rejected. The musicians provided sensitive support in the arias and played the “Sinfonia” with blazing intensity.

Next came a sinuous and highly charged orchestral rendition of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the opera “Salome,” by Richard Strauss, whose music Price performed more often in concert than on stage. One of her favorite Strauss arias was the “Second Wedding Night” from the little-known opera “The Egyptian Helen,” in which the lustrous tone of Graham’s powerful, full-bodied voice easily carried over the dense and colorful orchestration. 

A Puccini segment followed intermission, with a radiant account of the moving orchestral “Intermezzo” from “Manon Lescaut” preceding the title character’s central aria, “Vissi d’Arte,” in “Tosca,” which Graham rendered with searing desperation in a role that both she and Price have portrayed with distinction on stage.  

The concert concluded with two excerpts from Samuel Barber’s seldom performed operatic setting of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” commissioned for Price as the first production at the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. Graham segued effortlessly from the light-hearted playfulness of “Give Me Some Music” to the somber tragedy of Cleopatra’s death scene.

The evening was immeasurably enhanced by Rhodes’ engaging introductions to the music and by an insert of lyrics and translations in the program book. In a classy closing touch, Graham bowed to Rhodes out of respect for him as an “all-too-rare singer’s conductor.”