Opera Critic » Washington National Opera

Washington’s truncated season continues this fall with a new production of Richard Strauss’s one-act shocker.  Staged by Francesca Zambello, whose Ring Cycle effort here was cut short by budgetary problems, the staging features the famous soprano Deborah Voigt in her company debut in the title role.  Zambello stuck close to Biblical idiom for the production, giving us a very literal depiction of Herod’s court that vaguely evokes the Hollywood genre pictures of two generations ago without missing the work’s important color metaphors (white, red, and purple, all of which suggest death and decay).  Her major innovation is to place a kind of translucent shower curtain across the stage to separate the scene of action from the off stage banquet.  The idea is to show that all the characters are under observation and that larger constraints (society? public opinion? morality?) shape, direct, and condemn actions and choices.

This is a heavy interpretation of a work mainly about the relationship between power and death.  While not the poorest or most tasteless interpretation of Salome out there, it does not exactly ring true on stage.  Unusual twists water down the themes somewhat further.  Jokanaan spends much of his time on stage looking conflicted between his horror of Salome, well established in the music and libretto, and an erotic fascination with the temptress that Zambello seems to imagine in him.  Augmenting the Dance of the Seven Veils with four dancers all more talented than Voigt, whose nudity is, for the better, suggested at the end subtracts from the piece’s seductive effect.

Nevertheless, the cast soldiered along under the firm baton of Washington National’s new music director Philippe Auguin.  He led an energetic performance that recalled how well the orchestra can play when in the proper hands.  Voigt’s soprano has not always lived up to its reputation for size or beauty, but in the Strauss repertoire she can be called credible at least.  Her Salome was vivid and strong, benefiting from fine supports and an impressive dramatic interpretation.  Daniel Sumegi sounded rougher and more forced as Iokanaan but still captured the Prophet’s passions and conviction.  Richard Berkeley-Steele’s fading dramatic tenor was easily adapted to Herod, whom he sang convincingly in his Washington debut.  He was well matched by debuting German mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel’s Herodias, who held the necessary dramatic edge over him throughout the evening.  Sean Panikkar stood out among the talented supporting cast in the role of Narraboth, a part that can leave a strong impression when performed by a fine tenor.

The nation’s official opera company has opened its new season under a cloud.  Budget problems have reduced 2010-2011’s offerings to just five productions, down from the usual seven or eight, leaving Washingtonians with the smallest repertoire in nearly two decades.  After announcing staff cuts in the recent past, the company has confirmed rumors that artistic director Placido Domingo, who has led Washington National since 1996, will step down at the end of the current season.  Negotiations are reportedly underway to merge the beleaguered opera with the management of its only venue, the Kennedy  Center for the Performing Arts.

Starting the ill starred season with James Robinson’s production of Verdi’s tale of illicit love and anti-monarchical conspiracy does little to alleviate the sense of woe.  Robinson’s effort last season with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was a happy enough jaunt into the world of stagecraft, but his Ballo leaves much to be desired.  Adopting the opera’s proper Swedish setting, Allen Moyer’s sets are dominated by a Nordic bleakness.  Gustavo’s first act throne room resembles a Quaker meeting house with undecorated walls and two rows of plain chairs.  The second act, set by the gallows outside Stockholm in the original stage directions, is here an inexplicably disused hall with no walls and scattered broken chandeliers.  Only the Ulrica scene seemed to match something one would recognize, but why spoil the effort by having her throat slashed at the end of her all too accurate predictions and Gustavo’s enlightened (the historic Gustav III had pretensions to the “enlightened” part of “enlightened despotism”) pardon of her?  James Shuette’s costumes, at least, seemed right.

Tenor Salvatore Licitra may be the closest thing we have to an Italian superstar, and his casting as Gustavo was entirely right.  His small stature was not helped by the scale of the production, but his vocal tones were clarion and he delivered the doomed king’s music with a beauty rarely heard even in middle Verdi pieces today.  Sadly his performance was diminished by his fellow principles.  The young soprano Tamara Wilson shows some promise, but lacked the pyrotechnics for a successful Amelia.  The revelation scene in Act II was downright boring.  I wondered why anyone would take any sort of risk for her charms, let alone the fatal one Gustavo takes in seducing (at least with words) his best friend’s wife.  Luca Salsi’s Renato fell flat.  His singing lacked the passion one would expect from a cuckolded husband bent on murderous revenge.  His dramatic interpretation was stiff.  Elena Manistina’s Ulrica added a fine mezzo to the cast, but alas the character’s appearance in Act I was too short to save a lackluster performance.  Basses Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins were menacing conspirators.  Daniele Callegari is new to Washington’s podium but led an undistinguished orchestral effort.

Tough economic times have had a noticeable impact on the arts over the past couple of seasons, and Washington opera-goers will notice this most acutely in the conclusion of their city’s first full staging of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, an on-going project since the 2005-2006 season shared with the San Francisco Opera and directed by the prolific if not always popular Francesca Zambello.  Halfway through the Cycle budget cuts forced the delay of Siegfried by one season (it was replaced by an uninspired revival of The Flying Dutchman), to last spring.  Now additional financial troubles have forced the company to downgrade the final opera, Götterdämmerung, to just two concert performances.

Contrary to expectations, the concert format was no let down.  Zambello’s “concept” production, which set the first three operas in an evolving twentieth-century America, seemed to decline in quality and taste (and, likely, budget) with each successive premiere.  We do not know what she had in mind for Götterdämmerung, but in practice the absence of a full stage production meant that the singers simply appeared on a stage sparsely decorated by a “smoke and mirrors” projection of mists and clouds on screens, curtains, and other drops that complement the action of the plot.  Small scale props and costumes that seemed appropriate to the characters (formal wear for Gunther and Gutrune, a simpler gown for Brünnhilde, a gold-lamé Asian chemise for Hagen, dress down basic black for Siegfried) lent credibility.  Indeed, with only a few more innovations and the removal of the music stands (which only some cast members appeared to need), the “concert” performance might have passed for a respectable minimalist stage production.

The musical effort was mostly a success.  Irene Theorin, who sang Ariadne with the company this season, debuted here as the Siegfried Brünnhilde last year, also making her Met debut in the broadcast Walküre of its full Ring Cycle.  The last opera’s incarnation of the role is the most challenging, and Theorin brought admirable vocal and dramatic intensity to the part.  She has a tendency toward shrillness in the upper register, something not noticeable in her performances last season, but 90 percent of her performance this afternoon represented Wagner singing at its best.  She was fortunate to have a strong Siegfried in Jon Frederic West, a true Heldentenor whose strong tones and rich baritonal qualities held up for the entire performance.  Gidon Saks barked through much of Hagen’s music, but the rest of the cast made up for it.  Alan Held, who sang all three Wotan roles in the previous operas, was a welcome addition to this cast as Gunther.  Gutrune is never a standout role because of the weak nature of the part, but Bernadette Flaitz, making her Washington National Debut in these performances, turned in a competent effort, as did Elizabeth Bishop (once a soprano) as both Waltraute and the Second Norn.  Gordon Hawkins reprised his successful Alberich in the character’s brief second act appearance of this opera.  Frederika Brillembourg should be commended for her double duty as the First Norn and Flosshilde.  Carter Scott’s fine soprano rounded out the Norns, while Jennifer Lynn Waters and Brandy Lynn Hawkins sang out the remaining Rhinemaidens’ parts swimmingly.  Philippe Auguin drew possibly the best playing I have ever heard from the Washington Opera’s orchestra, which received choruses of well deserved bravos.  Certainly this was the best of its Wagner playing in recent memory.

Flu season devastated Washington National’s presentation of Richard Strauss’s delightful comedy.  Both tenors who were to share the role of Bacchus and mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson, cast in the trouser role of the Composer, cancelled most of their appearances, leaving the company to rush for replacements. Fortunately, the replacements materialized and the show has gone on.  Set in the “house of the richest man in Vienna,” Ariadne auf Naxos includes a prologue in which the master commands that, because of the time constraints posed by a planned firework display, both the serious opera company and a street harlequinade he has hired to amuse his guests perform their works simultaneously.  The opera’s “act” features this awkward dual performance, which oddly enough harmonizes the two very different theatrical genres to reveal colorful, if rather cerebral, insights into human relations and the nature of love and abandonment.

Chris Alexander’s award-winning production, on loan from the Seattle Opera, places the action in an unidentified major American city (“let’s say in Washington DC,” Alexander said in an interview).  Although it is hard to imagine any private entertainment so lavish in the nation’s capital, the prologue is set in what looks like the “staff only” area of the Phillips Collection or one of the city’s other smaller museums.  Institutional lavatories are converted for use as dressing rooms by paper signs marked “Bacchus” and “Ariadne,” after the opera-within-the-opera’s leading characters.  The act unfolds in what looks like a piano lounge, with on-stage dinner guests (including in some performances the opera-loving Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg themselves) surrounding a circular stage and flanked by works of art.  Zerbinetta, sung charmingly yet precisely by the talented Russian coloratura soprano Lyubov Petrova, delivers her aria “Grossmächtige Prinzessin,” in which she tells the abandoned and lovelorn Ariadne to deal with the fact that men stray, reclining atop the piano.  And it was a delight to have the evening ended with the fireworks promised by the plot.

Petrova’s performance was the vocal highlight of the evening.  Swedish soprano Irene Theorin has received much attention for her fine Wagner singing and delivered a radiant Isolde at Bayreuth this summer, but somehow her Ariadne just did not come together.  She sang the dreamy “Es gibt ein Reich” will artful sensitivity, but the rest of the role fell flat, vocally limited and dramatically wooden.  Her leading man, tenor Corey Bix, fared worse, delivering an underpowered performance that noticeably collapsed in the last scene of the opera, Bacchus’s finest music.  Elizbeth DeShong’s Composer was well crafted and delivered in attractively urgent tones; it was too bad her physique could not complement the delicate balance between animus and anima that the role demands.  Jennifer Lynn Waters, Cynthia Hanna, and Emily Albrink, all Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, sang the roles of the comforting nymphs.  Washington National Opera regulars Corey Evan Rotz, Greg Fedderly, and Grigory Soloviov made their usual competent contributions as members of the harlequin troupe.  Honolulu Symphony conductor Andreas Delfs cannot be faulted for the orchestra’s pedestrian playing of Strauss’s score.

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