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Esclarmonde, Part 2

The following observations are in addition to my review of the same performance, which took place last Friday. You can also read the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, April 11).—CTD

The Lisner Auditorium hosted the Washington Concert Opera's performance of Massenet's Esclarmonde. Rarely heard in opera houses (that's the point with the admirable philosophy behind the Washington Concert Opera), it was a literally rare treat to hear the music live. The productions of the WCO are not staged, giving room for the (skillfully) thrown together orchestra and the chorus to fit behind the singers.

Dean Peterson's full bass was well employed in the very exposed and long prelude of the Opera that has Phorcas set the plot and introduce his daughter. Act I had Celena Shafer in the role of that daughter, Esclarmonde, bemoan her lonely state, despite being the newly crowned queen of Byzantium after her father's abdication. The lonely Queen also wants French hero and knight Roland for herself—and before he marries some other girl (the French king's daughter, actually, as she hears), she whisks him off to an enchanted island and follows him there—as she conveniently is endowed with magical powers inherited from her father.

This vocal tour de force was managed outstandingly by said Celena Shafer, whose bright, clear and accurate voice was "interrupted" only by Gigi Mitchell-Velasco's husky mezzo (singing Parséïs, Esclarmonde's sister) and tenor Eric Fennell's Enée, Byzantine knight, local hero, and fiancé to Parséïs. Mme. Shafer was rightly showered with wild applause and bravos after Act I, to which she responded with faux-incredulous gestures of "Me??? Really?? Are you sure? Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Mr. Fennell proved to possess a beautiful voice, so long as he sang with moderate volume and relaxation. Aims of his to up the decibels or the "drama" of his voice immediately showed strain, took away the beauty, and added nothing, not even volume. Fortunately, that did not occur very often.

On the enchanted island, meanwhile, a confused knight Roland—vocally underrepresented in perfect French by a (seemingly) weak Robert Breault—when the veiled Esclarmonde flies in. Plotwise it gets tricky from here. Roland falls hard for his kidnapping admirer, even though he cannot know who she is, nor look at her face until she turns 20. Still... Unfortunately, the French city of Blois needs Roland to defeat a siege of which Esclarmonde had a vision that she (silly thing) shared with him. She promises Roland nightly visits and gives him a magic sword of invincibility, activated only so long as he is faithful and keeps secrecy about their love life. If this sounds like backwards Lohengrin after a few too many Pernod's, it gets even better after intermission!

There we see King Cléomer of Blois facing defeat at the beginning of Act III. François Loup, who looked like Roland/Breault's father (which confused me additionally), sang his part marvelously, with a round and comfortable voice that carried through the hall with ease. Robert Gardner sang the suspicious spoiler of a Bishop. Standing next to Mr. Loup made for as impressive an argument as can be devised that stature and build have nothing to do with the quality or volume of voice. Mr. Loup is a small, almost frail-looking man of advanced age and could be your grocer next door or a shy office clerk near retirement whose hobby is growing cauliflower. Next to him young and big Mr. Gardner is all neck, chest, and torso. Aside from looking distinctly like a man in a lion suit (including his blond, wavy mane), he performed with every mannerism of an opera singer: squinting, very dramatic breathing, portentous movements. Despite all those remarkable differences, both were equally successful in tone production and volume. Two admirable performances to which Mr. Loup added the additional ounce of visceral joy of music-making.

Roland, meanwhile, lands in the nick of time to beat the enemy Saracen Sarwegur and save the city and all of France. He is consequently offered another bride, King Cléomer's daughter. Roland's "Thanks, but no thanks" makes the Bishop wonder. He quizzes Roland in private and forces the hero to cough up his Esclarmonde secret. The Bishop declares the Esclarmonde business (not without some justification, to be fair) witchcraft. As Esclarmonde makes her nightly visit, which she announced with backstage vocal exercises, in which Celena Shafer nailed a high F-sharp, the Bishop returns in soul-saving and exorcizing mode and rips off Esclarmonde's veils. While Roland is dazzled by her beauty, Esclarmonde laments that she has lost her magical powers and her throne. Scolding Roland, she runs off.

In the forest of the Ardennes where Phorcas has curiously retired to a cave, Parséïs and Enée visit and explain the situation to the former King. Phorcas resumes his magical powers and has Esclarmonde flown in by spirits. (The Deus ex machina worked overtime.) She is once more assured of her permanent loss of throne and powers and told that lest she renounce Roland, the knight will die. So she tells him (he's somehow arrived at the scene: I don't know how) to forget her and, with some minor complications, is taken back by her father to Byzantium to be the first prize at the tournament that has all along been planned to mark her 20th birthday.

One knight also went to the tournament with the intention to "find death," and this mysterious hero in black armor wins the tournament anonymously and despite himself. Not knowing whose hand he just won, the knight refuses the prize, but Esclarmonde hears the voice and recognizes Roland. Everyone unveils and "unvisors" and Esclarmonde and Roland are happily united. The chorus (underrehearsed in this production, to say the least) rejoices and praises Empress Esclarmonde. How exactly she got to be empress again is not clear, but it does not really matter compared to the grave sin of Massenet's unforgivable departure from Wagnerian opera logic in that no one dies. Even with this layup for "redemption though sacrificial love and internal combustion" criminally missed, it was a joy to see and hear Esclarmonde.

The entire cast was good, but Mme. Shafer's bright voice that hit all the notes deserves special mention. To point out that her voice had little color and character seems unfair, almost, given the astounding achievement her performance was all around. If Robert Breault had had a weak start, he certainly warmed up over the course of the opera. By the third act he had transformed himself into something resembling a heroic tenor. Towards the finale, I had to take back my initial assessment entirely. I was, however, worried about the imminent explosion of his head, as he had successively grown redder in the face, ending the opera in the astounding color of eggplant. Dean Peterson's Phorcas was most impressive, also, with his stage presence coming through even in a concert performance. The orchestra under the able leadership of Antony Walker performed well.

The music is well worth hearing. Even if not likely as good an opera as Thaïs or Manon, it's quite distinct, perhaps more unique than beautiful, but always very pleasant. The finale is—hackneyed as the story may be—goose-bump inducing, thanks once more to very commendable vocal performances. The next WCO experience will be Luisa Miller on June 5th. After the promise of this performance, I know I won't want to miss it.

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