Opera in the Park differs greatly from its elder outdoor counterpart, Concerts on the Square. The latter represent, of course, six separate concerts, against a single event. But setting makes the difference. The Capitol Square is a noisy and distracting location, generating an atmosphere of picnicking and socializing to which the music is almost marginal for many. But Garner Park lies far from noises and distractions. Enhanced by efficient sound systems, its bowl-like expanse of lawn ideally focuses concentration on the musical program itself.
To some extent, last Saturday's Opera in the Park was an advertising event. It included selections from all three of the operas that Madison Opera will present the coming season, with three of the four guest singers veterans of the company's recent productions. I suspect that so carefully designed a program is more likely to draw new attendees to the company's productions than the Concerts on the Square programs are to win converts for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.
Whatever such wrinkles, this sixth annual Opera in the Park stood well on its own, with John DeMain leading members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and Allan Naplan as host. Framed by the patriotic displays (the National Anthem, "America the Beautiful"), the program had only one strictly orchestral item (an Offenbach mishmash), but a total of 19 vocal selections - mainly from operas (French, Italian and English), but also from operettas and musicals (English, Spanish). The opera chorus had two numbers of its own; otherwise, the soloists reigned.
There were familiar "hit" arias (from Faust, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Bohème, Porgy and Bess) and solos from musicals (including West Side Story). The soloists joined variously in important duets (from Lakmé and Don Carlo), plus quartets from two of the upcoming operas. Everyone jumped in for an ensemble from La Traviata as an encore.
The soloists were all strong singers. Baritone Lester Lynch is a powerhouse. True, Elizabeth Caballero aims her heavy soprano voice more at weight than style (and in overly "cute" acting). Lighter soprano Leah Partridge is a truly polished, expressive artist, and tenor Stephen Costello offers unaffected and luminous singing within striking versatility. Young tenor Heath Rush's brief appearance revealed a local singer of real promise.
The audience - estimated at some 12,500 - lapped it all up, joining in the now-traditional waving of light sticks at the end. Opera in the Park itself is now a tradition, a special jewel in Madison's outdoor summer season.