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'Il Corsaro' Actually Not So Bad

(L to R) Sebastian Catana, Tamara Wilson, Maestro Antony Walker, Michael Fabiano, Nicole Cabell, Eduardo Castro,
Il Corsaro, 2014, Washington Concert Opera (photo by Don Lassell)

available at Amazon
G. Verdi, Il Corsaro, M. Caballé, J. Carreras, J. Norman, New Philharmonia Orchestra, L. Gardelli
(Decca, 2009)
One often assumes, with the obscure operas that are the bread and butter of Washington Concert Opera, that the works themselves are generally not worth rediscovering. Sometimes, though, it is not only the fine roster of singers, which artistic director Antony Walker always manages to assemble, that makes this company's performances so memorable. Such was the case with Verdi's little-known opera Il Corsaro, heard at Lisner Auditorium on Sunday evening, which has not only some beautiful individual numbers but signs of the master dramatist Verdi would later become.

This should not be surprising, since the libretto -- by Francesco Maria Piave, one of Verdi's favorite, if easily cowed, collaborators -- takes its story from a tale in verse by Lord Byron, The Corsair, who provided so many arch-Romantic stories for operas and tone poems. It follows Corrado, who leads a group of pirates based on an island in the Aegean against the Turks -- a revolutionary cause near and dear to Lord Byron's heart. Corrado is in love with Medora, who begs him not to leave on this mission, because she has a premonition that she will die before his return. When Corrado and his men attack the Turkish city, the pirate confronts the local pasha, Seid, and is ultimately helped to escape by the pasha's favorite, Gulnara, whom Corrado saved from the fire set by the corsairs. Corrado returns to his island with Gulnara, only to find that his beloved Medora has poisoned herself after hearing the news that Corrado was facing a brutal execution at the hands of the Turks. Although Gulnara has expressed her love for Corrado, the pirate cannot face life without Medora and hurls himself from a cliff.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Tenor Michael Fabiano leads Washington Concert Opera’s ‘Il Corsaro’ (Washington Post, March 11)

Gary Tischler, Antony Walker of Washington Concert Opera: ‘It’s All About the Music’ (Georgetowner, February 27)
The title role requires that rarest breed, a dramatic tenor, and Michael Fabiano (first heard in Santa Fe last summer) fit the bill quite beautifully: a room-filling, Byronic-hero kind of sound, unbound confidence as he sang without a score, a sweet legato in the slow pieces, and more strength than finesse in the faster arias. Soprano Tamara Wilson, whom we have admired in staged operas at Wolf Trap and at Washington National Opera, exceeded expectations as Gulnara, the female lead with all the juicy bits -- an amply proportioned, buttery voice with striking breath control (heard in a moving messa di voce, for example), note-perfect intonation, and laser-like accuracy in the fioriture. The same intensity was heard from baritone Sebastian Catana, as the rage-filled pasha -- in some ways a study for the character of Otello much later in Verdi's career -- announced in his opening slow aria with the three trombones, a powerful voice that was skillfully deployed.

Soprano Nicole Cabell made a much more favorable impression here than when I first heard her. It is not a large voice, so she was easily upstaged by the orchestra and the other leads (as in the duet with Fabiano in Act I and the trio at the end of Act III), but in the sensitive role of Medora she had an affecting touch, especially in her Act I aria with the harp and the equally lovely lament in Act III. At the podium Walker was, as always, a sure hand, effective because he demands excitement from his players, plus rubato and shape, even in the silliest oom-pah-pah accompaniments. A couple early entrances -- one in the men's chorus during the attack scene, and one from a trombone (I think) in the introduction to Act III -- were the only defects one might mention.

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