Washington Concert Opera, a venerable player in the capital’s arts scene, celebrates its 25th anniversary this season. A warm Washington spring may not be the first climate that comes to mind when thinking of Saint-Saëns’s best known opera, but it was not out of place. As an opera conceived more as an oratorio – and whose major actions largely take place off stage – Samson may be uniquely suited within the repertoire for formats such as Washington Concert’s.
Alas, it was not a great success. The performance’s major draw, rising star tenor Brandon Jovanovich, did not ultimately appear as Samson. With little notice and no explanation, he was, to audible audience murmuring, replaced by Frank Poretta. Known to Metropolitan Opera audiences, Poretta’s capacious volume could not compensate for a certain roughness in the voice and lack of coordination with the orchestra. While competent, the effort sounded rather under-rehearsed. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was more at home with the role of Delilah and the general surroundings. But her performance of the sultry part was disappointingly thin in places. The grand arias resounded rather more fully, but one missed Denyce Graves and Olga Borodina, both of whom have notably sung the role in Washington. Greer Grimsley’s fame in the opera world derives from his respected Seattle performances as Wagner’s Wotan. Age, however, seems to be catching up with him. His High Priest of Dagon sounded more strained than menacing, with dry patches marring its upper range. There were some annoying lesser vocal mishaps as well. Kenneth Kellogg, appearing concurrently in a minor role in the Washington Opera’s production of Massenet’s Werther, flubbed his initial lines in the small but important part of Abimelech. That he did so is unfortunate enough, but the reason appeared to be that he alone among his colleagues felt it unnecessary to have the score before him. In a concert performance in which everyone else used a score, this was inexcusable. Washington Concert Opera relies on a professional orchestra and chorus, led for ten years now by artistic director Antony Walker. Walker drew occasional flashes of insight from his ensembles, but the opera’s broad canvases remained rather elusive.