Opera tenor Brian Jagde and soprano Joyce El-Khoury sang a variety of operatic duets in a lovely and highly entertaining recital at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) last month. The recital also marked the opening of the Ann E. Pitzer Center. A short drive or (slightly longer walk) from Jackson Hall (where most of the Mondavi performances take place), the Pitzer Center is a more intimate hall with seating for perhaps 450.
The venue was the perfect setting for the two singers, who were accompanied on piano by Robert Mollicone. Mr. Jagde served as the master of ceremonies, introducing each of the arias with a touch of humor and charm that extended into his portrayal of the roles he was singing (especially in the love scenes with Ms. El-Khoury’s characters).
Both of these young people are possessed of great singing voices, and they have trained their instruments to a level that only the best can attain. And they are both at ages that allow them complete command of the way they project and modulate. Ms. El-Khoury, in particular, was able on a number of occasions to go to the highest of notes in her range (a descant soprano) in the softest of pianissimos, a feat only the very best opera stars can manage. And that she appeared to do so effortlessly made her singing seem almost miraculous.
The program began with two duets from Verdi’s “La Traviata.” The first was the duet “Un di felice” (“One happy day”), in which Alfredo and Violetta play at seduction until he “convinces” her of his love. This one ended with Mr. Jagde embracing and kissing (quite passionately) Ms. El-Khoury. He then went off-stage as Ms. El-Khoury sang “Sempre libera” (“Ever free”). Her solo was the first of the night that featured her coloratura range, and she delivered the notes with exquisite precision. Mr. Jagde sang his lines from off-stage as she reacted to his entreaties. It was a lovely performance.
Puccini arias filled the rest of the first half of the concert. From “Manon Lescaut,” Mr. Jagde sang “Donna non vidi mai” (“Never have I beheld”). From “La Rondine,” Ms. El-Khoury sang “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta poté indovinar” (“Who can divine Doretta’s wonderful dream”). And from “La Boheme,” the duo sang “O soave fanciulla” (“Oh lovely girl”), again ending in a kiss.
The second half of the concert featured Verdi, Dvořák, and Massenet. From Verdi’s “Otello,” the pair sang the duet “Gia, nella notte densa” (“Now, in the darkness of the night”). It was the only time in the entire recital when they sang with printed scores on stands, but the duet is so beautiful that the need for the scores was hardly noticed.
They then offered solos from Dvořák’s “Rusalka.” First, Ms. El-Khoury sang the “Song to the Moon” aria, followed by Mr. Jagde’s powerful “Vidino, divan, přesladká” (“Beautiful vision, delightful”). Another pair of solos followed, from Massenet works, and both were probably the best of the evening. First Mr. Jagde sang “Pourquoi me réveiller” (“Why awaken me”) from “Werther.”
And then Ms. El-Khoury went one better with an absolutely gorgeous rendition of “Adieu, notre petite table” (“Farewell, our little table”), expressing in the original French the touching nostalgia the aria reflects. (Only in opera can the smallest aspect of life become a source of metaphysical contemplation.)
The program concluded with the duet, “Toi! Vous!” (“You! Here!”) also from “Manon.” It was another one of those operatic love/seductions, and Mr. Jagde played his role for all it was worth, eliciting a few chuckles from the audience as he tried to deny his repressed love for Ms. El-Khoury’s Manon, only to finally succumb to her entreaties. It was a great finish to a wonderful recital, and it demanded an encore, which the pair provided with the Merry Widow duet from the opera by Franz Lehár.