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Some Thoughts on the Washington Opera

The Washington Opera has recently announced that it will now be known as the Washington National Opera (see the company's press release from February 25). In light of that decision, we offer the following reviews of two of the company's productions from earlier this season.

Holy Leaden Joke, Batman!

The Opening Night of the Washington Opera 2003/04 Season

On September 6, 2003, the Washington Opera opened the season with a production of Die Fledermaus (The bat), Johann Strauss, Jr.'s lighthearted operetta that is a perennial favorite for New Year's in Austria and Germany. With its wit and memorable waltz music, it is, along with Der Zigeunerbaron (The gypsy king), the only of his operettas that has stood the test of time. The Washington Opera production, however, did not necessarily affirm this view.

This work, which has to rely as much on its wit in the spoken dialogue as it does on the music, can be an utter success amid amiable silliness, or rather a flop. Saturday's efforts came closer to the latter than the former, despite wonderful singing by the principals, June Anderson as a radiating Rosalinde; Wolfgang Brendel as a charming, if overacting Eisenstein; Peter Edelmann as a Dr. Falke in the tradition of the great Walter Berry; the Washington Opera's Jesús Garcia as the funny, over-the-top tenor Alfred; John Del Carlo as prison director Frank; and Hoo-Ryoung Hwang, whose singing clearly outshone her acting as chambermaid Adele. (Mistakenly, Maki Mori was claimed to have sung that role on the Washington Opera Web site and the review in the Washington Post.)

The highlight however, was a series of mostly well-chosen and well-performed guest appearances within the operetta's staged banquet. Plácido Domingo performed Spanish favorites of his, including a tango that hardly suited his no-longer lithe body and Franz Lehar's "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" (Yours is my entire heart) from the opera The Land of Smiles—which is somewhat of a tradition to present within this work. There was also some wonderful ballet dancing by American Ballet Theatre principals Gillian Murphy and Ethan Steiffel of Center Stage fame (a corny but well-danced Hollywood flick about ballet), superb singing by young Argentinian soprano Virginia Tola who sung an excerpt from Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette during the dress rehearsal on Thursday and was glorious in her performance of a zarzuela and a following duet with Maestro Domingo himself. The presence of several ambassadors and the Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer added a little extra glitz to the occasion.

If only the evening had ended there, the audience may well have been left with utterly positive impressions. Alas, the third act was to follow, and other than Garcia's charming self-mocking acting, it had little to nothing to offer that could possibly have ameliorated the comical travesty that was Jason Graae as the permanently drunken jailor Frosch (frog). Potentially one of the funniest roles in the world of opera—not requiring any singing—one can get away with much slapstick and old jokes, so long as a caustic wit strikes through. Not so with Jason Graae. His material was of the worst kind: his character mutated to "Frosch, the fairy jailor clown." In a string of tasteless jokes, one more leaden than the other, he tried to elicit laughter that could not have been rooted in much else than kindness on the part of the audience. Though the worst of the bad jokes had fortunately been cut between the dress rehearsal and the premiere (including a sticky, criminally flat intern joke that Thursday's sparse crowd reacted to with disturbed oohs) it was still an embarrassing and hackneyed performance that certainly had not only the German/Austrian contingent of the audience, used to Viennese productions, cringing. One must hope that Austria's first lady, present and presented in the audience, did not understand English well enough to realize how truly bad—Mylanta jokes and all—it was. It left a bad taste in one's mouth that all the fake champagne on stage could not wash down.

Considering that much of the improvement from dress rehearsal to premiere was due to the extraordinary performances of the guest stars—few if any of whom will appear in consequent performances—it remains a very unrecommendable evening out. I suggest instead—and for a fraction of the cost—a good recording of Die Fledermaus (Karajan's 1960 mono version, live at the Wiener Staatsoper, on RCA would be nice) to be played in the background and a good bottle of (real) champagne for a nice and far more enjoyable evening at home.

Die Fledermaus (recorded by Karajan live, in 1960)

Available at Amazon

The Collusion of Incompetence:
Die Walküre at the Washington Opera

(November 8, 2003)

If a major opera house's schlock is hailed as the pinnacle of operatic achievement in the local newspaper, it is almost bound to be the unbeatable combination of the Washington Opera and its congenial partner in crime, the Washington Post. Since the Washington Post could legitimately be considered the nation's second-best newspaper, some people make the erroneous deduction that this is at the same time a statement about its absolute quality. The Post's journalism—in style always, in substance often—has a way of proving that wrong. If you ask me, especially when it comes to covering art.

The Washington Opera in turn is an often struggling (but on a higher level than many opera houses in this country) and commercialized mid-size troupe, capable of very decent opera but not often fulfilling the expectations it has of itself. To simplify, the singing is usually good or even outstanding, the guest stars impressive, but the rest of the company lags all too much behind. The orchestra has much improved under Heinz Fricke, but it has still far, far to go. And it is too small by half or more. The supporting cast is between OK and god-awful. The choir does its job and never more; the dancers are nothing short of painful to watch. But worst of all (though the dancers really are terrible) is the staging at the Washington Opera, which would fail to spark excitement in my grandmother. Put the qualities of these two much revered D.C. institutions together, and you get the Post's review of Die Walküre at the DAR Constitution Hall.

In his article ("A Breathtaking Ride With 'Die Walkure': Placido Domingo Leads a Divine Cast to Wagnerian Heights," on November 7, 2003), Tim page reviewed this "sensational production," words that claim title and caption next to a picture of Plácido Domingo. Gushing with giddy excitement, Page goes all the way out in the first sentence:

The Washington Opera's new production of Wagner's Die Walkure which received its first performance at DAR Constitution Hall between monsoons Wednesday night, may be the best thing this company has ever done.
I am torn between agreeing (it would say legions about the Washington Opera but nothing about the quality of Die Walküre) and wishing that it could not possibly be true. Foremost I ask myself: Where was Tim Page? Presumably at the premiere, and perhaps the universe adapted different laws for that performance. Perhaps Mr. Page was asked by the company to be kind? (It would not be the first time that the Post has willingly performed as the mainstay for a lackluster production of the opera house.) Most likely we just disagree on what "sensational opera" means and entails, and if in fact this one was as good as it gets in town (without being a sour assessment of the limits in Washington), he may not have had truly outstanding opera to compare it to for a while. (I also wonder why the Post does not spell the opera as it should be, but that's the least important detail.) If this sounds like Die Walküre was a total disaster, I need to clarify: it wasn't the performance per se that was borderline appalling, it was the combination of the trite, well-done, but never exciting, lukewarm opera combined with ridiculous hyperbole in the paper that got me rattled.

Die Walküre was fine. The orchestra played as decently as one can expect it to do. Thin, lacking in force, form, cohesion, and phrasing, but never outright bad or off. The singing (adjusted for the singers saving their best for the premiere) ranged from notable to delightful. The acoustics were, as usual at the DAR hall, a nightmare. The staging was subpar and the costumes a crashing bore to anyone who knows anything about Wagner performances of the last 40 years or so.

But one by one: the Post has first honors go to (surprise!) Plácido Domingo. I'd like to say that Mr. Domingo is a boon to D.C.—he has attracted major talent to the Washington Opera, has made a few slightly daring productions possible (El Cid comes to mind), has a most professional, friendly, and truly humble (for a man of his stature, no small achievement!) demeanor. He is an artist who continues to work on several aspects of his art, still. Like his pronunciation. This, however, does not mean that Domingo continues "to surpass [himself], again and again, as [he] grows older." By stature, fame, and achievement I do think that Domingo may well be the greatest active tenor in opera, but "the mixture of passion and intelligence [...] which he employs [...]" is decidedly not "unrivaled in the opera world today."

But what got a loud "What?" out of me upon first reading the review was this: "Placido Domingo is not only a great singer but a great actor as well [...]" Huh? Plácido Domingo's "acting"—if one can call it that—is painful to watch. It is extraordinarily bad. If he does not sing, it exhausts itself in empty gestures, slow-motion miming. Theatrical plunk and open-ended, purposeless limb extension is all there is. Surely, he's not alone in that in the opera world, but to call him a great actor is almost insultingly off the mark. (For a truly great actor/singer, albeit in a different repertoire, see Bryn Terfel live some time!) Domingo's singing, on a happier note, is still remarkable, if on its way out. The strain that Tim Page heard was audible at the dress rehearsal already. The role of Siegmund is about as far as Domingo's voice can make it on stage. His pronunciation has improved over the years (judging from recordings) but is barely adequate and would hardly garner much approval from a German-speaking audience.

He performed with Anja Kampe, as Sieglinde, who gave her company debut and a very good one at that. I bemoaned her diction though, and the German native she is, it was a shame that I had the utmost trouble understanding her words. Her singing was warm and well-delivered, part of a solid performance if perhaps not "the next Glenn Gould" when it comes to "North-American-debut-made-in-Washington-fame" for Beltway residents to be proud of.

On Alan Held, Mr. Page and I can happily agree. Page's writing that his "acting and singing are lithe and plausible" I can only second. In fact, over the course of four hours, I appreciated and liked Mr. Held more and more. In the end I was convinced to have seen and heard a wonderful bass and a good and very potent(ial) Wotan. A singer with subtlety as part of his repertoire, with great pronunciation and diction (I could understand virtually every word he phrased), Alan Held left me with my most favorable impression of that night.

Next to Held was his wife, or rather, Wotan's wife, Fricka. Fricka is to the Gods in Der Ring what Yoko Ono was to the Beatles. She seems irrational and bitter, vengeful even, but is actually the calm focus point of the world of the gods: the last instance of morality, without which the world order of the gods would only have crumbled earlier. The singer behind this figure was Elena Zaremba. I had never imagined her as a Fricka but have liked her very much ever since seeing her as Carmen in Munich. (She was also the saving grace as a vocally enticing Ulrica in an otherwise rather dreadful 2002 Washington Opera Un Ballo in Maschera.) Her Fricka was downright outstanding. She held back across the board at the dress rehearsal, but part of the impression she left is also her singing Wagner, rather than yelling it. Not exactly sotto voce, but not too far away from it either, she never forces her voice to be bigger than it actually is. Her performance gave the production a value on a psychological level that came despite, rather than because, of the direction.

Linda Watson—uninjured still at that point—was pale. She didn't really sing at the rehearsal, so I reserve my judgment on her vocal ability. But acting, pronunciation, and surefootedness could all be improved upon, it seemed. Kurt Rydl as Hunding neither impressed nor disappointed me. He was well regarded with applause from the sparse crowd though.

The Valkyries were simply dreadful. Vulgar, pointless, affectedly juvenile in pathetic outfits (more of that later), and vocally a mixed bag, I shall refrain from inflicting pain by naming them. Aside, I need reserve my poison for Francesca Zambello, Peter J. Davison, and Anita Yavich, the three culprits guilty of direction, sets, and costumes, respectively. In his description in the Post ("Matrix-Night at the local S&M bar—you've seen it all if you've ever been to the opera in Germany"), Mr. Page is dead on. The conclusion, however, is different from mine. First, not only was the staging miles (rather, decades) away from being even slightly novel, it was an old idea badly rehashed. If you've wondered how three or four stereotypes (about Wagner, Valkyries, Wagner stagings, etc.) superimposed onto each other might look, you would have had your chance to get the satisfactory answer courtesy of Brünnhilde, Waltraute, Gerhilde, Helmwige, Schwertleite, Ortlinde, Siegrune, Grimgerde, and Rossweisse.

But in order to balance the bit of insight in one part of the Post out, Dan Via, "special to The Washington Post," gets his say about it also. "[Anita] Yavich's costumes draw inspiration from modern manifestations of these impulses: industrial structures such as oil derricks, bridges, and scaffolding." Ah-hum. Mme. Yavich is quoted: "I thought it would be a great metaphor for how we try to control everything, but at the same time, nature is completely uncontrollable. . . . If you say yes to a Valkyrie, that means you will die and follow them," Yavich explains. "What do these women have to look like to make these guys want to go? I think they have to look very attractive but, at the same time, look very strong." Admirable thoughts. Just one small detail would be the fact that if the Valkyries pick you up, you are already dead.

available at AmazonR.Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen,
Karl Böhm / Bayreuth FO

The whole Valkyrie ordeal, where the shortcomings of the production were most obvious, was utterly unenjoyable. To present the ultraconservative Washington audience as modern that which was dusty in the 80s—and then badly done on top of it—was a coup that somehow failed to excite me. And just why did the scenery look so familiar? Ah, yes, of course: it was the Fidelio staging regurgitated in black! Responsible then: Zambello, Davison, and Yavich. (It needs to be said that it worked much better inFidelio, which was a reasonably fine production.) Every element in Fidelio had its copied part in Die Walküre, just a bit darker and more crooked. The industrial stagedrop, the flat extension of the stage with cut-outs—be it Florestan's cell or Brünnhilde's fiery resting place—it was entirely devoid of new ideas.

It would have been just another performance at the Washington Opera, and not a particularly good one, had not Fricka, alias Elena, and Wotan, alias Alan, held it together. Both added something to already rather good singing and rescued otherwise sordid acting. The Post concludes, "Get a ticket immediately" (?!). Is this perhaps necessary encouragement so that the Washington audience would not pass on the last performance at the inept DAR Constitution Hall and instead hold out for the return to the Kennedy center? I'd say: save up for a trip to Munich, Berlin, or (if you have eight years' worth of patience) Bayreuth to see how it's really done. Don't expect much from future Wagner performances in this town. Immediate Karl Böhm antidote recommended.