Sopranos deliver varied shades of sound

Copyright 2014, Toledo Blade

- Published Saturday, February 15, 2014
by Sally Vallongo

The Toledo Opera’s Ladies in Red Gala on Friday was like a great late-night party with 900 people invited. The Valentine Theatre was wall-to-wall glitz and tux as local society turned out ready to celebrate I-Heart-You Day in style.

And onstage were five divas in elaborate gowns — plus, maybe, a few others in tuxes — with a great house band. And all were dedicated to bringing the music of love to life for one enchanted Valentine’s Day evening.

If you thought all sopranos sound the same, well, lesson learned.

Audrey Babcock, Elizabeth Baldwin, Sarah Jane McMahon, Jennifer Rowley, and Amy Yekel, sopranos all, demonstrated the great variety of color, quality, timbre, and potential for this highest of female voices.

Just like the many shades of red they wore — rose-cerise-scarlet-rouge-crimson-ruby-Spanish red — the singers demonstrated the impressive vocal variety a handful of sopranos can produce.

Take Babcock, known for her portrayal of the fiery Carmen in the eponymous opera, she reprised the “Seguidilla” from the Bizet opera — complete with castenets — to open the second half, and did a spirited version of “Granada” to close the concert. She’s a mezzo-soprano, a middle range; her rounded, rich, burgundy voice also balanced the creamier lyric soprano of Baldwin in the “Flower Duet” from Lakeme, by Delibes. Definitely Spanish red.

Baldwin, the youngest player in the cast, delivered a voice rich and full-flavored, although a bit forced in the upper register. Her performances of “Marietta’s Lied” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and the beloved “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca tapped innate musicality and showed off a polished instrument. Her voice is in the red-red range, perhaps like my favorite teen lipstick color, Cherries in the Snow.

Set aside crimson for McMahon, for that is the shade her smooth, serviceable soprano voice suggested. Like a great utility sports star, this busy diva can belt out a quirky contemporary love song (“Taylor, the Latte Boy”), enchant all of Paris as Musetta, the flirtatious courtesan from Puccini’s La Boheme, and warble delicately as Mabel from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

All that and, at the end of “Poor Wandering One” from Penzance, she did the splits, parasol held high.

In scarlet ruffles and plenty of bling, Rowley owned the stage each time she walked on, as much for her acting as her expansive voice and physical gestures. She followed the tortured emotionality of “Tu che le vanita,” from Verdi’s opera, Don Carlo, and the “Ave Maria” from Otello.

Then, in a cabaret moment with emcee Kevin Bylsma, Rowley, in crimson ruffles and plenty of bling, re-created the bittersweet soliloquy “Vanilla Ice Cream,” from the Jerry Bock/​Sheldon Harnick play,Vanilla Ice Cream, giving it a lively personal shaping.

Yekel appeared in the second half of the program, singing Isolde’s “Liebestod” from Wagner with gravity and grace.

She then took hold of Gershwin’s beloved opera, Porgy and Bess, singing the beloved “Summertime” with grace and passion. Her amazing voice is powerful, rich, and seems to spring from a deep inner well of beauty. Make her color magenta, a deep-throated red.

As emcee, Bylsma was priceless, clever, and, at the keyboard offered a respite for the busy Toledo Symphony. Robert Mirakian and James Meena traded conducting duties, each leading for about half the program, each putting their distinctive stamp on the music.

Ladies in Red will be presented at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre. Tickets are $30-80 at or 419-255-7464.


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