Tom Huizenga, Chamber Opera's 'I Puritani': An Unadulterated Pleasure (Washington Post, September 25)
Tim Smith, Opera's memorable 'I Puritani' (Baltimore Sun, September 25)
Rossini, Otello (May 1, 2007)
Handel, Orlando (November 11, 2006)
Rossini, Tancredi (April 6, 2006)
Puccini, Il Tabarro / Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana (November 1, 2005)
Verdi, Luisa Miller (June 9, 2005)
Massenet, Esclarmonde (April 9, 2005)
The outstanding cast not only sang all of Bellini's outrageous high notes and impossibly difficult fioriture, they did so with panache and elegance. Soprano Sarah Coburn was a slender, blonde vision in an amber gown, with a gorgeous coloratura technique, floating pure and piercing high notes over full textures. Her thrilling performance of Qui la voce and the other demanding arias of this role is a reminder of how bel canto arias, especially the cabalette, should be delivered. Unlike Anna Netrebko's visually pleasing but musically sloppy performance at the Met last season, Coburn had the technique to make every note in each run heard clearly, not just a smear of five or six per octave. True, Coburn's Italian vowels crept toward American pronunciation, and her tone could become a little warbly and precious at times, but overall this was a stunning performance.
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee (reviewed at Ionarts recently in recital and in a previous outing with WCO) continues to pile up awards for his extraordinary voice and gave an equally impressive rendition of Arturo. The role has an extremely difficult beginning, entering the stage with challenging music, and ends the evening with a duet featuring one of the highest notes ever written for a tenor. Only a small côterie of the best singers are able even to hit that high F (the one written on the top line of the treble clef staff), let alone make it sound relatively good, and Brownlee is firmly in that group. Arturo sings it more or less at the moment when the Puritans are about to execute him, so if the voice sounds a little panicky, that just adds to the drama of the moment. Most tenors usually sound like they are going to die (listen to the clip embedded below -- even Pavarotti goes into a beautiful falsetto, although many tenors remain in a mixed to full voice). Some know-it-all knucklehead in the audience had to yell "Bravo!" and start clapping before the orchestra had even stopped playing. In the future, we will know that you understand that note was high, sir, only if you start applauding immediately after it is sung.
The High F from Credeasi Misera sung by a selection of nine tenors
Brownlee's voice was consistently suave and accurate, forming an exceptionally fine mixture with Coburn and the other voices in the great quartet A te, o cara. The two leads were beautifully supported by the exceptional bass of David Pittsinger (Sir Giorgio), all velvety smoothness, and the blustery, stentorian baritone of Stephen Powell as Sir Riccardo. What a nice surprise to hear mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór, who has impressed Ionarts before in recital and as a young artist with Washington National Opera. Her coffee-dark voice and elegant stage presence were an embarrassment of riches in the small role of Enrichetta. The orchestra put together by Walker had some fine moments, especially from the horn and trombone sections in Suoni la tromba, and gave an excellent stormy introduction to Act III. The chorus, however, sounded underpowered on the male side and under-rehearsed in general, missing an entrance or two. Another blemish was that the hideous electronic organ was back, stray notes and all, for the hymn scene at the opening of Act I.
While you will have to wait until April 13, 2008, for the next performance of Washington Concert Opera, it is another Rossini rarity, Bianca e Falliero, with Vivica Genaux, Anna Christy, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Until then, you will have to content yourself with hearing Antony Walker at the helm of Choral Arts Society for an Evening of Russian Music with powerhouse soprano Alessandra Marc (October 28, 7:30 pm) and Lawrence Brownlee's recital at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (March 1, 8 pm).