Opera Critic » Washington National Opera

Washington National has rounded out its season with this Rossini comedy favorite. Shared with the opera companies of Houston, Barcelona, and Geneva, Joan Font’s production grasps at the fantasy elements underlying the Italian composer’s retelling of the Cinderella story. The sets, by Joan Guillen, tend toward darkness and take a loose reading of the opera’s sense of place but are functional nevertheless. Guillen’s costumes do more to evoke the warped storybook fantasy tropes – multicolored outfits and hairdos remind us that we are definitely out of the real world and in some grotesque of conscience. Cenerentola’s only friends, apart from the visiting royal suite that rescues her, are life-sized rats danced by humans. On occasion their choreographed cuteness matched the action. But at other times one feared they might rise up and devour her. At times the effect seemed dangerously close to the current Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which the chorus is costumed as lab rats.

The major vocal effort, thoroughly advertised in the company’s promotional materials, is the rising mezzo Isabel Leonard’s company debut in the title role. Leonard recently received the Richard Tucker award, and it is easy to see why. Her musicianship bespoke admirable technique that granted her a purring control of the role’s essential darker contours while still allowing stratospheric ascents. Also blessed with outstanding dramatic ability, she led this very youthful cast with remarkable intensity. Maxim Mironov’s Don Ramiro, her prince charming, added a light tenor of delicate agility that recalled the best singing of Alfredo Kraus. Paolo Bordogna’s company debut performance as Don Magnifico, Cenerentola’s wicked stepfather, made up in comic acting what he lacked in vocal prowess. The Chinese bass known only as Shenyang added sonorous bass notes in the role of the fairy godfather Alidoro. And who could miss veteran bass-baritone Simone Alberghini’s impressive performance as Dandini, the prince’s valet who impersonates him to learn people’s true characters and intentions.

If the cast possessed obvious vocal strengths, it was unfortunate to hear them constrained by conductor Speranza Scappucci’s slow tempos. Cenerentola needs pizzazz and efflorescence. Here the music sounded too boxed in to make maximal effect.

It is rare that a production of La Boheme, Puccini’s tale of love and loss, receives and really innovative approach. Unfortunately the Washington National Opera’s new production lives up to this stereotype. Jo Davies’s updating the action to the time of World War I could have been innovative had the late lamented New York City Opera not done it in 2007. It also seemed strongly influenced by the Metropolitan Opera’s updating of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment (a production much shared around the world) to the same era. In any case it looked like La Boheme, and that is not always a good thing. Peter Kazaras’s direction likewise repeated all the same overfamiliar cliches to the point that it was hard to imagine the cast and crew having much fun at all.

Even a cliched Boheme can be entertaining with the right cast, and there were hints of that on stage last night. Saimir Pirgu’s sweet voiced Rodolfo had some presence but got a bit shaky in the blooming high notes. Corinne Winters’s Mimi also had charm, but seemed to light for the part at times. The opera’s other couple, John Chest’s Marcello and Alyson Cambridge’s Musetta, turned in competent performances that could have used more verve. The real vocal standout was bass Joshua Bloom’s Colline, which showcased the steadiest technique among the Bohemians. Philippe Auguin’s conducting harnassed a reasonably orchestral effort that was sometimes moving. But it could not help the effort’s overall staleness.

Paul du Quenoy

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.

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