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Conrad's new group displays harmony, loyalty

Richard Conrad's The Bostonians

At: First and Second Church, Saturday

Richard Conrad told a story about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Saturday afternoon. The celebrated German diva once told him, "I have no jewels, but I have an orchestra" after her husband, Walter Legge, put all his money into creating London's Philharmonia Orchestra. Conrad used the story to describe his own current situation. "I have no money," he said, "but I have these artists."

Singers from the old Boston Academy of Music, which jettisoned founding father Conrad a year ago, remain loyal to him and have created a new institution for him, The Bostonians. The group made its bow with the kind of concert the Boston Academy used to put on back in the days before money appeared: a piano-accompanied marathon of arias and ensembles from all the operas of a great composer -- in Saturday's instance, Wagner. Also, members of the old Boston Academy Orchestra volunteered a performance of the "Siegfried Idyll."

The last third of the six-hour program brought some unusual repertoire and some splendid singing. A long sequence from "Tannhaeuser" featured a rapt "Elisabeth's Prayer" by soprano Jane Leikin and an eloquent "Song to the Evening Star" by baritone Philip Lima, who has made a quantum leap forward since we last heard him. There was also a first-rate ensemble of men's voices for the "Pilgrim's Chorus."

Soprano Bonnie Scarpelli and tenor Mark Nemeskal didn't look swept away by passion in an episode from Act I of "Die Walkuere," but they sounded that way in a soaringly idiomatic performance. Marion Dry delivered Waltraute's narrative from "Die Goetterdaemmerung" with dark-toned urgency. Conrad contributed a meaningful performance of Amfortas's prayer from "Parsifal," and younger singers Lauria Bewig Chritton, Maryann Mootos, and Daniel Lockwood offered lively performances of rarely heard music from Wagner's youthful operatic version of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," "Das Liebesverbot."

Gale Fuller's delivery of Fricka's harangue from "Die Walkuere" would be at home on any international stage; she was magnificent in tone, intent, and presence. And then company diva Ellen Chickering brought down the house (not to mention the universe) with the "Immolation Scene" from "Die Goetterdaemmerung," singing with great dignity and flinging out top notes with fearless command.

There was able accompaniment from pianists Beverly Orlove, Christopher Dwyer, Jeffrey Brody, and William Merrill, who sounded like a whole orchestra in the "Tannhaeuser" scene. One left inspired, and a little melancholy: Opera faces many challenges in Boston, but lack of resident talent is not one of them.

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