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16.5.05

Shakespeare Opera Excerpts at Renwick Gallery

Amanda Squitieri
Amanda Squitieri, soprano
We have seen several of the Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, past and present, excel on stage this year. The premiere of Scott Wheeler's Democracy (see our review) featured great performances from Amanda Squitieri (Esther Dudley) and Christina Martos (Mrs. Grant). Former Young Artist Maria Jooste sang as the lead angel in the heavenly choir in The Maid of Orleans (see our review). Amanda Squitieri also sang the roles of Papagena in the main stage production of The Magic Flute and Rosita in Luisa Fernanda: she was awarded as the Martin and Bernice Feinstein Artist of the Year for her work with the WNO. As a group, the Young Artists gave a special performance of The Magic Flute, which Ionarts wanted to attend but could not, and have presented an interesting series of free concerts of opera excerpts, On Stage with Washington National Opera, in the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery. (Of the five or so concerts scheduled this past season, I had only made it to the first one, back in November, on American opera.)

On Sunday, that series concluded with a selection of excerpts from operas based on Shakespeare's plays, ingeniously paired with recitations (by the singers) of the source scenes from the plays themselves. At a few minutes before 3:00, none other than Plácido Domingo, General Director of Washington National Opera, walked into the Grand Salon, to great excitement, and sat down to hear the concert. The principal coach and Music Administrator of the Young Artists Program, Ken Weiss, narrated the program for us, which he divided into three parts. I assume that he made the selections, which were a pleasing combination of expected choices and lesser-known ones, lasting about 90 minutes, without intermission.

Leslie Mutchler
Leslie Mutchler, mezzo-soprano
We first heard a brief excerpt from Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), with Christina Martos as Helena and mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler as Hermia. I was most impressed by Ms. Mutchler in the American opera scenes, and I continued to be struck by the luscious quality of her voice and her acting ability. The trio of soprano Christina Martos, mezzo-soprano Erin Elizabeth Smith, and Ms. Mutchler came together for the terzetto "Je vais d'un cœur aimant" from Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict, derived from Much Ado about Nothing. This reprised the same combination of singers, who portrayed the Queen of the Night's Three Ladies in the Young Artists Magic Flute (Tim Page said they were "a sort of sci-fi answer to the Andrews Sisters" in his review).

Watching a bunch of opera singers act out Shakespeare scenes with no singing is certainly not, generally speaking, my idea of entertainment. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the acting abilities of many of the singers, although it goes without saying that a short scene is a far cry from a more sustained play. Amanda Squitieri and baritone Thomas Beard took the roles Katharina and Petruchio, first in a scene from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew and then in two scenes from the opera of the same name, premiered in 1958, by Vittorio Giannini (1903–1966). I don't know his music at all (besides knowing that he was usually dismissed by modernist composers as retrogressive), but what I heard was melodically fruitful and fairly tonal, with some dirty jazz harmonies for color. Christina Martos and Leslie Mutchler showed the best comic timing and sense of schtick in the letter scene from Merry Wives of Windsor, in which Alice and Meg compare their nearly identifcal letters from Sir John Falstaff.

The too short quartet from Verdi's sublime Falstaff sets the same scene, reuniting the three ladies (Martos as Alice, Smith as Meg, and Mutchler as Quickly) with Squitieri as Nannetta. This ensemble of women reminded me of the excerpt from the end of Mark Adamo's Little Women (1998), on the November program, when Jo is reunited with her three sisters in her memory. The cast was the same this time, with only one exception, that of Christina Martos instead of soprano JiYoung Lee. It is probably folly to think this, knowing how competitive young opera singers must be, but this quartet at least gave the impression that they really enjoyed singing together and they sounded so well matched.

Their male counterparts sang the buffo duet from Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, with baritone Thomas Beard as Fluth (Ford, disguised as Bach, or Brook) and bass Benjamin von Atrops as Falstaff, complete with an enormous stomach pillow. Just as I observed in the American opera scenes, von Atrops is wielding a very resonant voice but he needs to sharpen its edges by reducing the vibrato, which would go a long way toward greater accuracy of tone. (Just to show that I am not alone in this, Tim Page wrote in his review of von Atrops as Sarastro in the Young Artists Magic Flute, "he has the low notes for the part, but too many of them were woolly and indistinct").

Excerpts from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet followed for Beard and von Atrops, as well as a set from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with Amanda Squitieri and Erin Elizabeth Smith as Juliet and Romeo, respectively, to go along with their roles, for soprano and mezzo-soprano, in the corresponding scenes in Vincenzo Bellini's I Capuleti ed i Montecchi. All six singers performed very well, promising, we hope, rewarding careers in the opera. Three pianists (James Lesniak, Nino Sanikidze, and Lara Hanoian) and Young Artist conductor Steven Jarvi assisted with appreciated skill. We look forward to the next season of this interesting series of concerts, which has not yet been announced.

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