You have to hand it to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: It’s enterprising. If the members see an opportunity for expanding their role in the community, they try it out. Thursday night’s concert at Strathmore represented a logical experiment: Since the main opera company in Baltimore folded in 2009, why shouldn’t the BSO step into the gap?
Thus Marin Alsop took the podium for a semi-staged “Magic Flute,” performed with an energetic narrator in lieu of the spoken dialogue, and featuring — in another community-building move — several members and alumni of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. The result (which comes to Baltimore for two more performances Saturday and Sunday) was perfectly credible, and reasonably enjoyable.
The orchestra is, in fact, becoming very good at blending a kind of comfortable familiarity — a just-this-side-of-a-pops-concert vibe — with quite good performance. Some of the evening’s didacticism was possibly de trop: The concert’s organizers seemed to be working on the assumption that the orchestral audience wouldn’t be too familiar with opera, and therefore introduced and spelled out, scene by scene, the plot of an opera that’s remained among the most-performed in the canon since the late 18th century and that was performed by singers in semi-costume (the men wore suits), with English supertitles. The audience was at no risk of being confused.
Vocally, the casting represented a level that’s becoming ubiquitous in opera in this region: the promising young professional, as featured at the Wolf Trap Opera, Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival and, now, here. Morris Robinson, the one regular Met star in the cast, was billed as a “Special Guest Artist.” (Robinson made a properly imposing Sarastro, with a curiously weak upper register perched atop a gorgeous, rich lower one.)
Of the rest, Jonathan Boyd, who sang Tamino, appears to be the most professionally advanced, and with reason: He has a sturdy voice that rings to the point of being slightly metallic. At the start of “Dies Bildnis,” he had a near-crack that I’m sure was a complete aberration, born of not quite supporting enough while singing softly. He supported plenty the rest of the night. Emily Albrink, a Domingo-Cafritz alumna, was a lovely strong Pamina, also with a touch of metal at the edge of her soprano.
Nathaniel Webster’s cancellation left Papageno in the hands of Daniel Cilli, an eager but raw beanpole of a baritone without a voice of much distinction. Peter Burroughs, as Monostatos, was even more lacking in presence.
The Domingo-Cafritz singers and alums, however, acquitted themselves very well, as the Three Ladies (Elizabeth Andrews Roberts, Sarah Mesko and Cynthia Hanna) and even more as the set of armed men: Aleksey Bogdanov has already shown he’s a baritone to watch, and Jeffrey Gwaltney matched a strong tenor voice with a physical appearance so believable as a bodyguard type that I almost convinced myself he was an extra until he opened his mouth.
Michael Ehrman, the director, deployed all these forces straightforwardly enough, getting the message across and pleasing the audience (including little touches like having the narrator, Tony Tsendeas, double as the tree from which Papageno threatens to hang himself: a silent role that proved Tsendeas’s funniest moment of the night).
Alsop led efficiently — though there were inevitably problems of coordination with the singers standing in front of the podium — and was, as always, a good sport, at one point warding off a proposition from Papageno, who was in search of a girl to kiss. This audience tittered at her “this wouldn’t work” shake of the head.
Call it community opera at its very best: The evening reflected an orchestra looking at both the needs and resources of the area around it. It’s not trying to compete with the Met; but it’s not a bad thing to emulate.