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1.10.05

Trilogy at Washington National Opera

This review first appeared, in a different form (DCist Goes to the Opera, October 1), at DCist.

Sylvie Valayre and Plácido Domingo, September 30, 2005Following up on our review of the first production, I Vespri Siciliani, at Washington National Opera, on Friday night I went to see the second one, a gala production featuring the company's superstar music director, renowned tenor Plácido Domingo. The fact that he is singing in all three acts of this pastische production, in alternation with working at the conductor's podium for the other production, I Vespri Siciliani, is remarkable for a musician of his age. As Tim Page put it in his review for the Post, "at the age of 64, Domingo continues to 'have it all'." Well, if not quite "all" in terms of vocal range and power, which have not surprisingly dwindled slightly, his magnetic power on the stage certainly continues to attract listeners worldwide. In fact, at intermission on the terrace of the Kennedy Center last night, I met a journalist who had travelled from Austria just to hear Domingo sing in this production. That's a serious opera lover.

This season is officially the WNO's 50th Anniversary Season. Normally, this would have been a chance for a major opera company to make a big commission of a new opera. One of the most successful new operas in recent history, John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, was originally commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. However, commissions are expensive and often risky: in fact, Ghosts was not premiered until eight years after the 100th anniversary season it was intended to commemorate. Having just produced a not overwhelmingly successful new opera last season, Scott Wheeler's Democracy, WNO may be gun shy. Whatever the reasons, the company presented this production, Trilogy, as one of the major events to celebrate its golden anniversary. It's a sort of Frankenstein monster, single acts from three different operas stitched together to make an evening's worth of singing. If that image doesn't sound all that flattering, then you can tell that I was not all that excited by this production. In my opinion, this is the sort of thing one puts together for a summer lawn performance, not as an important part of an anniversary season. That being said, there is some radiant singing to be heard in this production, and it is worth your time, just to see Domingo on the stage, if for nothing else.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Merry Widower (Washington Post, September 26)

T. L. Ponick, Domingo golden in 'Trilogy' (Washington Times, September 26)

Tim Smith, Domingo delivers in 'Trilogy' (Baltimore Sun, September 29)

Kate Wingfield, Three's a Crowd (Metro Weekly, September 29)
The first part of Trilogy is the second act of Umberto Giordano's Fedora (1898), and it was supposed to be a vehicle for Domingo and another opera veteran, Mirella Freni, whose voice I have loved for almost as long as I have loved opera (most recently in Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans with WNO). When La Freni had to withdraw, I was disappointed to learn that her replacement was Sylvie Valayre, the soprano in the second cast of Tosca last May. It's not a terrible opera, and we would have enjoyed Domingo and Freni together in it much more. In this act, there is a clever use of onstage piano, as a non-singing character, Lazinski (a terrible knockoff of the Chopin legend, played by Domingo-Cafritz young artist James Lesniak), gives a recital that forms the accompaniment for the singers. The big discovery of the act was powerhouse bass-baritone John Marcus Bindel, as tall and broad as his voice, as the villian, Gretch.

Barbara Frittoli and Plácido Domingo, September 30, 2005Far and away, though, the reason to see this production is the middle part, the tragic fourth act of Verdi's Otello, one of the most beautiful operas ever written. It's one of Domingo's signature roles, and we would much rather have seen a complete production of it than Trilogy. The best singer in this mixed production is the Desdemona, Barbara Frittoli, who showed perfect control in her high, supersoft singing. The "Willow Song" was as radiant and tragic as one could have hoped (although the orchestra's wind section, featured prominently, left something to be desired, and not because of Heinz Fricke's conducting, which was excellent). The strings get their turn in the "Ave Maria," and they provided a gorgeous harmonic fabric to the simple vocal part. Prayer scenes are a dime a dozen in opera, but this is one of the great ones. Bindel was back here, as one of the great villains of opera, the treacherous Iago, although he sang for only about 45 seconds. (All in all, Trilogy was a waste of a good singer in this case: I look forward to hearing Bindel again as Fasolt in the WNO production of Wagner's Das Rheingold in March.) I love Otello, but it did feel wrong to see only its tragic conclusion, especially between two such poor cousins on either side.

The final part of Trilogy, a bastardized version of the third act of Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow, is hardly worth mentioning. Here, the guest star is not even an opera singer. In our opinion, featuring Broadway star Christiane Noll in this production, apparently in a bid to woo a larger public, seems like desperation on the part of WNO. The same is true of the bad jokes when the first two act's leading ladies return here, to sing a Mozart duet. Trilogy must have cost quite a lot for the name singers (although featuring so many of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program's singers was economically savvy). It may not be great art (except for that resplendent middle act), but for the chance to see Plácido Domingo, I would probably have sat through worse. We advise you to do the same, although Generation O tickets may be harder to find for this than for I Vespri Siciliani.

The remaining performances of Trilogy are matinees this Sunday and next Sunday (October 2 and 9, 2 p.m.) and this coming Thursday evening (October 6, 7:30 p.m.). There will be a short break for Washington National Opera until the final production of the fall, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, takes the stage on October 29.

5 comments:

jfl said...

Three reasons to see the 'Trilogy': Barbara Frittoli, Barbara Frittoli, Barbara Frittoli.

It was almost embarrassing how much the orchestra improved when Fricke took over from Kohn.

"Scheduling Difficulties" on the part of Mme. Freni? I am still giggling about that one. She was miffed that Domingo never stopped by to say hello when she was last in town ("Joanna D'Arcova"). Says the little bird on the tree, at least.

Fedora's piano hanky-planky was obnoxious - great idea, badly executed. The camp in poor Lehar was palpable. A mess of three, four different languages, too.

jfl

Gabi said...

Hi Charles,

I have just enjoyed reading your review. What a huge compliment to be mentioned in one gasp with the great Domingo. ;-) We really loved the performance (ok, not the whole. ;-) - but only the Otello-act was worth travelling many thousands of miles. We would do it again! Plácido and B. Frittoli were just terrific! I completely agree with you about Bindel: a very exciting voice.

As for the previous comment by "jfl".... well... our little bird here says something different about Freni's dropping out and I am quite sure, it is right and yours is wrong. ;-) But anyway...

All in all we really enjoyed our trip to Washington and we have to make a BIG compliment for your town and its citizens. It was a very positive experience how friendly and helpful people were!

Charles, if you ever had any free minute I'd love to receive an e-mail from you. I hope you kept my card. Probably I'd have something nice to send you. ;-)

Best regards from Austria!
Gabi

Anonymous said...

Your review is right on target from all points, still I concur that hearing Placido was great. One question, with such a voice and presence, when is Placido going to put Bindel in a lead role? What a voice! I. Bennett

Charles T. Downey said...

Gabi, I am so angry at myself for apparently misplacing your card. If you read these comments again, please e-mail me (ionarts at gmail dot com).

Anonymous said...

Charles,

Thank you for your kind words. Still waiting...

JMB