By:  Hal de Becker


It’s not surprising that one doesn’t hear Las Vegas described as a ‘cultural wasteland’ anymore, not with a philharmonic orchestra, ballet and opera companies and performances like the one I attended last weekend at Summerlin Library Performing Arts Center.


The second of Sin City Opera’s three productions of  ‘Opera in August’ included two of its featured sopranos plus Argentum Chamber Works, a new local chamber music ensemble, and tenor Craig Alan Thomas’ specialty act, ‘Opera Through the Ages’.


Argentum certainly did not seem ‘new’:  It was polished, well-rehearsed and totally professional, and its choice of compositions refreshing and challenging.


Under the baton of Travis Higa, Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Octet’ for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and euphonium received a performance that revealed the work’s wit and sparkling musical conversations between the instruments.  


Many years ago I saw the composer conduct this piece at UCLA in California.  His conducting style included hopping and jumping, which in that instance was so vigorous he nearly fell off the podium. 


Two compositions by 20th century French composers were also presented: Francis Poulenc’s Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon and Jean Francaix Sept Dances from an apparently lost ballet, Les Malheurs de Sophie (The Misadventures of Sophie).

 Craig Alan Thomas

In both pieces the instruments often echoed the musical themes of one another with delightful effect.  Ebullience and delicate melodies abounded in each and the players’ artistry delivered them with deceptive ease.


Instrumentation for ‘Sophie’ consisted of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and Villarreal horn.  They were played in two’s by ten members of the ensemble.    


Two of the ladies, both flautists, wore similar, identically colored shirts and pants.  It was a nice visual touch and a device worth considering for the other duos, each in a different color.       


Throughout the program the musicians all played with beauty and flawless unanimity. For this writer though, a few did stand out: Joe Ahn-Benton, piano; Alex Hayashi, oboe; Kyle Overlay, trumpet; and Hitomi Shaji, trombone. 


SCO’s Rebecca Morris was indeed the “…commanding mezzo-soprano” described in the printed program.  She possessed a honeyed timbre and her expressive shading and dramatic interpretations were tasteful, never excessive.  Her Habanera from Carmen and an aria from Rossini’s ‘The Italian Girl in Algiers’ were among the show’s strongest highlights.   


Her colleague, soprano Athena Mertes, appropriately acted the sweet-talking daughter in “O! mio bambino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and was coquettish as Musetta in his La Boheme.  


But her singing was loud and in both arias frequently off key, excruciatingly so at the top in Gianni Schicchi.  


Both ladies received sensitive, secure accompaniment from Mr. Benton at the piano.


And then there was Mr. Thomas.  For him, ‘the show must go on’ was not an empty refrain.  He was performing just days after undergoing major surgery and required assistance and a walker to reach the piano where he was to accompany himself.       


His only apparent concession to his medical ordeal was to speed up his arias and omit the Mozart and Puccini selections.   


His singing was strong and very open but limited to only one dynamic: a pushed, sometimes stentorian forte.  This was fine for the dramatic “Vesti la giubba,” from Pagliacci, but not for the lyric “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.    


Despite that and some vocal unsteadiness he is a singer I’d like to hear again when he’s fully recovered.


SCO’s last entry of its Summerlin series is next Sunday, August 21st at 2 pm.  In November the company returns to the stage of Winchester Cultural Center for the beginning of its new season in which Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ will be featured.