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American Opera at the Renwick Gallery

Grand Salon, Renwick GalleryThe Renwick Gallery, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW, has one of the most prestigious addresses in the District of Columbia, across the street from the Old Executive Office Building, in the same block as the White House. This is an area of Washington that at most times I avoid at all costs, but on Sunday afternoons, without the mad crush of lobbyists, diplomats, and politicos, downtown Washington is like a ghost town. Just how I like it. The Renwick Gallery was the old home of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and it was given to the Smithsonian in 1965, after attempts to have it torn down ultimately failed. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has used the Renwick as a supplementary exhibit space, and since that museum has been closed for renovation (begun in 2001 and expected to continue until July 4, 2006), it is the only place you can see some of the collection of art. (Major parts of the collection have been touring the country in traveling exhibits for most of that time.)

If you go upstairs at the Renwick, you reach a room called the Grand Salon (shown here), a "4,300-square-foot gallery with a soaring 40-foot ceiling" that was renovated in 2000. Its mauve walls are covered right now, salon style, with American paintings from top to bottom: the American Indian portraits of George Catlin, the angels of Abbott Thayer, the early Americana of Ralph Earl and Joshua Johnson, the Impressionist landscapes of Childe Hassam, the dream worlds of Albert Pinkham Ryder, and many more.

It was here that the latest installment of the free concert series "On Stage with Washington National Opera" took place on Sunday afternoon (October 10). For this event, the SAAM partnered with the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, which presented scenes from American opera featuring seven of its best young singers, with costumes and stage direction. (Soprano Maria Jooste, who was featured in a story for NPR, Training to Be a Diva, did not appear.) The theme of American opera was selected, according to the introduction by artistic consultant Ed Purrington, because of the proximity of the Presidential election. Although there was not much that was truly political in the scenes chosen, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the more obscure selections.

Leslie Mutchler, mezzo sopranoA scene from Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All (1947), with an experimental libretto by Gertrude Stein, was first. In this quartet, the librettist, Gertrude S. (Christina Martos), and the composer, Virgil T. (Thomas Beard), narrate a dialogue, sometimes in open conflict with one another, between Susan B. Anthony and Anne. This was the first appearance from the most impressive singer on the program, Leslie Mutchler (Susan B. Anthony), a mezzo soprano from Virginia, trained at Indiana University. Perhaps her rich and powerful voice was flattered best by the roles given to her, but she seemed the most confident on stage, even though the roles required different strengths from her voice. She was also featured, to great advantage, as Jo in the touching quartet from the end of Mark Adamo's Little Women (1998), when Jo is reunited with her three sisters in her memory (JiYoung Lee as Amy, Amanda Squitieri as Beth, and Erin Elizabeth Smith as Meg). She showed great dramatic strength as Sister Helen in her moving duet with Sister Rose (Christina Martos) from Dead Man Walking (2000) by Jake Heggie.

Benjamin von Atrops, a bass from California, sang the oration of William Jennings Bryan, from Act II of Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956). What his voice lacks in precision of pitch it makes up for in considerable resonance, and he acted very well. (Another opera by Douglas Moore, The Devil and Daniel Webster [1939] was the oldest scene to be presented.) A scene from Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden (1965) featured great acting and singing from Amanda Squitieri (Margaret) and Erin Elizabeth Smith (Lizzie), as the latter's fantasies about marrying Jason (baritone Thomas Beard), the sea captain betrothed to her sister, run rampant. A humorous scene from Tartuffe (1980) by Kirke Mechem showed off the comic skills of sopranos Christina Martos (Marianne) and JiYoung Lee (her maid, Dorine). Marianne pretends to commit suicide because she will not be allowed to marry her boyfriend, an act that her smartaleck maid recognizes, by chapter and page, in the romance novel her mistress has lately been reading. Mechem's score draws on the tonal conventions of Italian tragic opera to make the musical point, as the sopranos upstage one another (with the final line, "page 258, and they died, happily ever after," going to Dorine).

The final two scenes came from Regina (1949), Marc Blitzstein's opera based on the play The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman. In the first of them, Zan dreams about her future husband in the idealistic aria "What Will He Be?" (beautifully sung by Korean soprano JiYoung Lee), which is contrasted with the abusive relationship of her favorite aunt, Birdie, and her husband, Oscar. The second scene, the devastatingly sweet "Rain Quartet" featured JiYoung Lee (Zan), Amanda Squitieri (Birdie), Erin Elizabeth Smith (Abbie), and Benjamin von Atrops (Horace). This ensemble, with its carefree refrain ("La la la") in response to the phrase "Listen to the rain!", was a great ending to this surprising and delightful program.

The next concert in the free series "On Stage with the Washington National Opera," featuring singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program in operetta scenes, will take place on November 13 at the Renwick Gallery. To reserve tickets, e-mail, or by telephone at (202) 448 3490.

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