Opera Critic » National Symphony Orchestra

The capital’s national opera company is ignoring Richard Strauss 150th anniversary year, so it has fallen to the National Symphony to mark the occasion. In addition to concerts presenting excerpts from the composer’s searing Elektra and Salome, the orchestra has departed from its traditional programs to give his sumptuous comedy of manners Der Rosenkavalier in its entirety.

The effort is a natural challenge. Its four hours of music demand dynamic action depicting some of the most sophisticated human emotions. To present it without proper decor and full acting seems almost futile. Nevertheless, with Renee Fleming again reprising the Marschallin, one of her signature roles, disappointment was unfathomable. The voice has aged and thickened. There is a tendency to swallow low and middle-register notes. But the gesture and expression, the nuanced trills, and arching legato, are all still there and made her the star of the evening after more than 15 years singing the part. Her Octavian was scheduled to be the star mezzo Sarah Connolly, who is rapidly taking over Susan Graham’s exposition in the part. Connolly, however, was indisposed and replaced by the talented American singer Stephanie Houtzeel, who brought fervor and passion to the performance. Franz Hawlata is a veteran Baron Ochs and very much in character here, still commanding low notes (including a thrilling low E flat at the end of Act II). Creative staging had him sing his tipsy waltz tune in the audience as he ambled out at the end of the second act. The only weak link was the Sophie of Marisol Montalvo. Some shimmering high notes in the presentation of the rose scene, impressive though they were, could not compensate for an overall weak performance. Likewise, the Faninal of Adrian Erod hardly boomed out the music of her proud father. Among the supporting cast, the talented Washington native bass-baritone Solomon Howard left a strong impression in two roles – the notary in Act I and police commissioner in Act III.

Christoph Eschenbach drove the orchestra without much resolve or much room for the singers to do their level best. The concert staging creative a natural disadvantage in this regard, but the performance might have been given better in the neighboring opera house. The Washington National Opera last gave Rosenkavalier in 1995. It might be time to think of a revival.

Paul du Quenoy

Washington’s elite – or at least those in it who have leisure time in these heady days of health care drudgery — turned out in force for the opening of the National Symphony’s season.  Among the audience one could observe former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and wife Andrea Mitchell, ubiquitous Washington insider Vernon Jordan, noted journalists Thomas Friedman and Charles Krauthamer, and former Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion Blakey, among others famous and infamous.  Despite the rainy weather, the beginning of the Symphony’s 79th season was no dull affair, with flowers, abundant evening dress, and even the appearance of the orchestra’s ladies in colorful evening gowns.  Principal conductor Ivan Fischer has had a mixed reception in the year since he assumed the post, and, though I rather enjoyed the concert, reactions were far from uniform.

The entire Kennedy Center complex will follow a “Focus on Russia” theme this season, complete with a longer than usual visit by the opera and ballet of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater.  So it was entirely appropriate to begin the program with a rousing performance of the overture to Mikhail Glinka’s opera Russlan and Ludmilla.  This was followed by a playful rendition of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” a pastiche of folk pieces in the tradition of his native land, which he shared with Maestro Fischer.  The common heritage was, to be completely honest, probably the only reason to include the piece, but no one regretted it.  The Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Melodies) ended the first part of the program.  Based on Hungarian gypsy tunes rather than the abundant Spanish variety, national provenance again was clearly the reason for including the piece.  But once again it was no mistake.  Jozsef Lendvay’s solo violin brought the music to life with artful elegance.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 opened the second part of the program. Soloist Evgeny Kissin, still a prodigy after all these years, delivered a strong Romantic interpretation, eased by Fischer’s likeminded conducting. Kissin, who will also play the piece this season for the opening nights of the Boston Symphony at home and at Carnegie Hall, made us forget that the piece, really Chopin’s first work in the genre (his Piano Concerto No. 1 was written later than this piece but published earlier and is thus listed first), is not among the concert repertoire’s most thrilling selections.  He received a well deserved standing ovation at the end.  The next selection returned to the world of opera, this time Richard Strauss’s Salome, in the form of its famous dance.  Fischer sacrificed subtlety and seductive power to raw sound, but it is always a thrilling piece of music to hear and imagine, even for Washington’s cerebral audience.  The gala character of the evening virtually demanded something familiar for its conclusion, and we found it in the other Strauss’s best known waltz, On the Beautiful Blue Danube.  The orchestra played it jauntily enough, though it never really seems to excite anyone.  The Dvorak dance given as an encore was much more enjoyable.  It was too bad that the nation’s capital was not honored with a pre-concert performance of the national anthem, as befits such occasions.

Easter season enlivens the musical life of any major cultural capital, and Washington’s growth as one left no lack of offerings this year. The National Symphony continued its seventy-eighth season with two ambitious programs. The last days of Passion Week resounded with all-Brahms evenings, the highlight of which was the composer’s pious Ein deutsches Requiem, preceded by his shorter Variations on a Theme by Haydn. For this titan of German music, the NSO brought in a star conductor. At 81 Kurt Masur, longtime director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic among other assignments, still proved capable of delivering a robust interpretation. Variations on a Theme unfolded with mellifluous intricacy, particularly in the passacaglia at the finale. Ein deutsches Requiem presents greater challenges, but Mr. Masur’s accomplished musicianship left no room for disappointment.

At the performance of Saturday, April 11, the orchestra played with Teutonic conviction on what the faithful celebrate as the eve of Christ’s resurrection. The Master Chorale of Washington contributed a fine effort, though one of its members was overcome and had to be escorted from the stage. Soloists drawn from the operatic world added dramatic flair. Baritone John Relyea sang with stern authority, benefiting from his fine legato and stentorian tonality. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy complemented him nicely, though her lilting voice is not what it once was.

The following week NSO music director Ivan Fischer led a mixed program of works by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and the young American composer Daniel Kellogg. Kellogg’s Western Skies, an original piece commissioned by the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, is meant to depict the seasons and landscapes of the composer’s native Colorado. The world premiere seemed to go well enough, but the piece itself sounded more like a film score without a film than a work of the naturalist tradition in which it seeks a place. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor returned us to the established world of classical music. Fischer’s reading was playful at times and moving where it counted. The fine violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos, now artistic director of the Camerata Salzburg, performed his instrumental solos with verve.

The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a distillation of the composer’s signature approach to sonata, ballet, opera, and orchestral musical forms. Fischer led the orchestra well in each movement, though at times his approach sounded rather academic. In the percussive finale this resulted in a tepid reading.