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The searchlights sweeping the sky outside Kleinhans Music Hall on Saturday evening indicated that something festive was in the air.

Later, this was confirmed as JoAnn Falletta, the Buffalo Philharmonic and two fine young singers launched into an Italian Opera Gala, formally opening the orchestra's 2000-01 Classics Series.

After an opening performance of Rossini's Overture to "Semiramide," which was bright, expansive and full of vitality, there were four selections offering a thumbnail tour of Verdi's "La Traviata," with the concluding drinking song "Libiamo" reaching perhaps the festive peak of the evening. Tenor Raul Melo led off, forcefully hurling out the famous opening line, and the sense of Bacchanalian revelry continued to intensify with rousing, buoyant performances from the chorus, orchestra and both soloists.

The "Traviata" excerpts also served as an introduction to the featured young soloists. In the Act 2 "De' miei bollenti spiriti" Melo revealed a clear, clean and well-focused voice as he sang with tenderness and passion about the ecstasy of newfound love. He had the ability to be convincingly emotive, yet not to indulge in excessive heart-on-sleeve stuff.

Soprano Kaori Sato's voice was creamy and smooth in "Addio del passato." In this slow aria, she transmitted the ache of lost love more with her excellent control of tonal nuance than by clean articulation of the text.

The two soloists were complementary in their basic communicative qualities. Melo got his messages across with a medium-sized voice that was well pointed, expressive and extremely precise in syllabic enunciation, while Sato's smaller voice was equally effective, but depended more on subtleties of phrasing, coloration and expression. Her voice got covered by the orchestra at times, but she continued to hold the attention with her dramatic focus and beguiling stage presence.

Despite the differences in the voices, Sato and Melo blended well in duets from "Traviata," Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and Verdi's "Rigoletto," the evening's "spotlighted" operas.

Possibly the best example of Melo's strengths came in "La donna mobile" from "Rigoletto," where he was in command throughout despite not having a room-filling voice, and uncorked a nice ringing top end at the conclusion. Sato was truly mesmerizing in "Un bel di" from "Butterfly," where she conveyed the emotions superbly.

The "Humming Chorus" from "Butterfly" was mesmerizing as usual in its hushed pianissimo oriental chanting. But in this context we had a chance to really listen to Puccini's exquisite scoring and to revel in the delicious bass clarinet line.

Elsewhere, there was a rousing performance of the famous "Anvil Chorus" from Verdi's "Il Trovatore," a tender traversal of the orchestral Intermezzo from Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," and the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Verdi's "Nabucco," thrillingly illustrating the power of unison singing. The program closed with the final scene from Act 1 of Puccini's "La Boheme," with Melo and Sato distinguishing themselves in the consecutive "Che gelida manina" and "Mi chiamano Mimi," perhaps the greates one-two punch in the operatic repertoire.

To unbridled cheers and applause, the soloists sang the duet "Time to Say Goodbye," arranged by F. Morden, original source not revealed.

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra season-opening Opera Gala

JoAnn Falletta conducting, with soprano Kaori Sato, tenor Raul Melo and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus prepared by Thomas Swan

Saturday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall; repeat performance today at 2:30 p.m.

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