Opera Critic

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.

The audience at any Janacek opera must be ready to be appalled, watching persons acting in ways that are in truth no other than they ways they might have acted themselves; but they come back nevertheless because of the redemption Janacek unearths in the end, in the deepest and darkest places. Stark realism will afford only the truest of miracles.
Appropriately, then, the set of this new production is a stark white room furnished with only a simple metal table and a chair, elevated above the stage and framed in darkness. A woman in black has entered through a door in the rear and moves slowly to the right front looking out at the audience as if longing to be understood but having no delusions she will be. With so little by way of visual clues we can only assume she has been ushered into a doctor’s office and has bad news about a pregnancy. The wall on the rear slides to the right so that the door disappears and it is only an empty white wall but then continues to slide so as to reveal a breach from the left and Jenufa enters in a simple blood-red shift and heels, with her rosemary bush. Blood-red, sanitary white and the silent black of death, for the lady in black is merely a silent apparition during the first scenes.
Our view of the characters on the white stage in their monochrome costumes tends inevitably toward melodrama but then we watch how well this tendency is kept under control — how the art of the dramaturge is hiding art. The lady in black turns out to be the Stepmother, and it turns out that the Stepdaughter in red is the one who is pregnant. Her baby’s cap, the one thing brought back onto the stage from beneath the frozen river’s ice in Act Three, is also red. Again the simple decisions are packed with sense — the red of living love and the black of love that has died.
The Stepmother is a mysterious figure: she has become the sexton of the church and has been given the role of moral pillar by the community. In fact she is the second wife of the spendthrift second son of Grandmother Buryja, Steva’s younger brother Thomas, whom we do not meet. Only from the wedding song in the third act and the Stepmother’s staged reaction to it — a mounting revulsion — do we gather that she made some kind of mistake with this lout, the sort of mistake that would now make her so prudish as to disallow Jenufa to see Steve for a year because of his drunken behavior, ignorant as she is that Jenufa is already pregnant by him and needs him to marry her sooner. The Stepmother is the only woman in the opera who has no child of her own, only a stepdaughter — whence the title. And yet it is she that kills Jenufa’s baby thinking Jenufa can thus salvage her life by marrying Laca who truly loves her, rather than the older Buryja grandson Steva, his half brother.
Jenufa is the main character and the opera is named after her but the playwright had kept the stepmother in its title with a possessive pronoun. The main problem in the presentation of the story is therefore to maintain a balance between these two characters that in the end will tilt to Jenufa. She is the only character in the drama that does not change: she only loves and she only deepens. By the end, after Laca has defended her against the envious taunts of the mayor’s wife and the mob that supposes she killed the baby, we find there is only one person left who is worthy of her love, the one who loved her so much he cut her face. The plot tilts her way because the other pan has been emptied out. And now the back wall has disappeared, revealing a black beyond, and Jenufa closes the opera by telling Laca their love is is a good thing born as a miracle out of the dross of misguided passions; they turn away from the audience and begin to walk away from the audience, into a future they will illuminate with a truer love — the kind, Jenufa says, that comes from God.

Runnicles opened the prelude with a slower and more visceral pace than usual, and maintained this idiom, replacing the semi-autistic tenseness we have come to expect with a wilder and more reckless energy. This is the energy of Laca, the only life-loving energy in the story, and Hartmann’s powerful tenor brought this energy into song.  The Stepmother’s role requires a lot of body language to express the mystery of what is going on inside her and the task was handled well by the dramaturge and by Larmore. The mayor and his wife and daughter were, I felt, crude and hapless rather than the competent hypocrites they are. The dressing scene and bridal song, so richly deserved by Jenufa, were done with special charm and beauty by Spaulding’s chorus. Kaune’s Jenufa and Runnicles’ orchestra succeeded every time to pull off those wonderful moments Janacek always rises to, those high ascents above reckless fray of the world to the re-centering vision of dignity and faith; and the audience was very pleased.

The English National Opera’s tour de force 2011-2012 season continues with this revival of David McVicar’s production of 2008.  Shared with the Scottish Opera, McVicar’s effort reflects a kind of decaying sumptuousness, with all three acts set against the backdrop of palatial walls in disrepair under a broken marble ceiling.  The Marschallin’s bedroom is suggested by an extravagant bed.  The sets become Faninal’s house with the substitution of a well set table and fauteuils.  A simple dining table takes over for the third act inn.  Tracy McCallin’s costumes and other props suggest the opera’s eighteenth century milieu to accurate perfection.

Amanda Roocroft has taken the title role for the first time.  The voice is a shade too light to reach real gravitas, but its technical features did not disappoint.  A more introspective dramatic approach would have highlighted the performance.  Sarah Connolly, who is rapidly emerging as a Straussian mezzo of note, took the trousers role of Octavian to heights that warmly recalled the young Susan Graham in the part.  The delicate balance of animus and anima the part demands were strongly in evidence.  Her duet with the fine young soprano Sophie Bevan, who floated lovely piano notes, rose to the heights of the superb.  Sir John Tomlinson’s Ochs demonstrated that this excellent bass need not be identified solely with the sinister roles for which he is best known.  Comedic tomfoolery combined with sturdy vocalism to deliver the cad we all know and love. Only the high notes in the first act proved a bit too strong a challenge for this stalwart performer, but he hit both of the ultra low notes with delicious charm.  Andrew Shore’s Faninal and Mark Richardson’s Police Commissioner were fine additions to the cast.  ENO music director Edward Gardner led a strong yet balanced performance. Alfred Kalisch’s translation of the libretto was not always accurate but still responded well to the lyricism of Hugo von Hofmansthal’s original.

The Opera Orchestra of New York nearly faded with the 2008 financial crisis, but the last two seasons have allowed it to demonstrate an impressive return to fiscal and artistic health. (Or almost, its planned March 7 performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo in the title role was just cancelled for unspecified financial reasons). This season began auspiciously with an excellent and heavily cheered performance of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur starring the great Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu. Wagner’s early opera Rienzi – which the composer considered “immature” and banned from his personally designed theater in Bayreuth — had been scheduled for spring 2009 and then cancelled, but has now appeared. Eve Queler, listed since last season as the Opera Orchestra’s “Founder and Conductor Laureate,” has yielded the baton to the company’s new music director, the talented conductor Alberto Veronesi, but has pledged to return for one of the Opera Orchestra’s annual performances. This is the fourth time she has mounted Rienzi, and she chose it for her appearance this season.

The orchestra sounded very brassy and a bit loud, a trait for which Queler’s conducting has been criticized. In Wagner, however, it works quite well, and the unusual setting of Avery Fisher Hall (the company normally performs in Carnegie Hall) may have added the right acoustic effect. The orchestral moments, some derivative of Meyerbeerian grand opera but others showing the evolution of Wagner’s emerging style, passed most enjoyably. It was a disappointment that the ballet music was cut, but Rienzi in full is a cumbersome piece and something had to go to make for a balanced afternoon.

Ian Storey is edging toward that zone where one politely uses the phrase “past his prime,” but he delivered most of the title role with a verve that recalled the somewhat rough-edged 1950s German Wagnerian Gunther Treptow. The prayer aria was as eerily insightful as it should be for an opera about a populist dictator who defeats internal traitors, foreign enemies, and the church before his people turn on him. The image of a self-deluded Hitler in the bunker (where the original score of Rienzi disappeared with him…) is never far off. Elizabeth Matos fared less well as Rienzi’s sister Irene. Fine middle register singing too often jumped into upper range shrillness. A true discovery came in the French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet, who made her American debut in this performance. Her Adriano, a trouser role of conflicted loyalties and emotions, radiated a solid beauty and superb musicianship. Both the part’s traditional aria “Gerechter Gott” and cabaletta drew sustained applause and cheers. The young singers Ricardo Rivera, Brandon Cedel, Philip Horst, and Jonathan Winell all made solid impressions that suggested great things to come. The New York Choral Society and children’s chorus from the Vox Nova of the Special Music School made excellent choral contributions, the society from the stage and the children with entrances through the audience. A “military ruling” unfortunately excluded the West Point Glee Club from performing the soldiers’ choruses, but a replacement chorus of male singers did the job quite well.

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