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Washington Concert Opera

This review was supposed to be published by DCist, where I am now the classical music contributor, but ultimately it was not. We present it here, for what it's worth.

Indra Thomas, sopranoOn Sunday, as previewed in last week's Classical Music Agenda at DCist, I attended the final Washington Concert Opera production of the season, Giuseppe Verdi's relatively early opera Luisa Miller (1849), at Lisner Auditorium. The WCO's music director, Australian conductor Antony Walker, does a good job at bringing in some excellent singers for these performances, which is the best draw you can have for opera, especially in a concert version. Voice, voice, voice. For this performance, we heard Indra Thomas (shown at left), a young African American soprano who is starting to make a name for herself singing Verdi's operas, in the title role.

One of the best things about experiencing opera live is the staging. Historically, opera was the summa of dramatic art, with money showered on lavish sets, complicated stage machinery for special effects, and gorgeous sets and costumes. You might wonder what the point would be, then, in a company like WCO, which presents operas only in concert versions, with none of that overwhelming visual interest, only the music. One advantage is that it reduces the cost of your ticket. In some places, kings and other rulers paid for the lion's share of these expenses, but in many cities, going back to 1637 with the Teatro di San Cassiano in Venice, opera audiences have mostly footed the bill with the cost of their tickets, unfortunately making opera one of the most expensive kinds of entertainment. Happily, a WCO ticket is about one-third the price of a ticket to see a staged production at the Washington National Opera.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Pieces Come Together For 'Luisa Miller' (Washington Post, June 7)

T. L. Ponick, Verdi's 'Luisa' fittingly revisited (Washington Times, June 8)

Jens F. Laurson, Mi Chiamo Luisa Miller (Ionarts, June 10)
The other advantage is that the WCO can perform operas that would probably never be staged. This can lead to great rediscoveries like Jules Massenet's Esclarmonde, which we heard from the WCO back in April, a beautiful opera that is almost never staged or even heard these days. Luisa Miller is certainly staged more often than Esclarmonde: in recent memory, Denyce Graves sang this role for Washington Opera in 1995 and at the Met in 2001–2002. After sitting through the whole opera and trying to digest its bizarre story (adapted from Friedrich Schiller's play Kabale und Liebe), we understand somewhat better why it is not performed as often as Verdi's later and mostly better operas.

In his early career, Verdi had not yet broken out of the constraints of Italian operatic tradition in the early 19th century. In Luisa Miller, the orchestration is often handled minimally, still leaning on the "big guitar" sound of repeated chords in many of the arias, although there are some nice brass effects. The piccolo is featured prominently, screeching away at most loud orchestral moments. Harpists everywhere must curse Verdi's name, because the opera has a stupid harp part, almost negligible and only at the end of the third act. (Poor harpist Marian Rian Hays had to sit in the green room, reading a book or whatever, until the third act when she then had to sit on stage for most of the act until her set of arpeggios began.) However, as far as the characters are concerned, we do see Verdi working out the vocal characterization that he would perfect in his later operas.

Sunday night, Indra Thomas brought remarkable vocal strength and personal dignity to the title role. Verdi demands a lot from his sopranos, almost all of which Ms. Thomas brings, signed, sealed, and delivered: beefy low singing, good breath support, and power in the high range, as well as an impressive high pianissimo. As her voice matures, I think her accuracy will improve (we perceived a chink in the armor in some of the melismatic and staccato passages). The best performance was the other half of the archetypal Verdian father-daughter relationship, baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Miller, Luisa's father. His aria in the first act, which concluded on a stunning high note, was matched by the clear and rich singing in the great father-daughter duet in the third act. He received the strongest ovations at the end of the concert.

The paternal aspect of the opera is somewhat overpowering, as there is a father-son relationship here, too, between the tenor role of Rodolfo, who falls in love with Luisa, and the bass-baritone role of Count Walther, who opposes his son's marriage to a commoner. As Rodolfo, tenor Richard Leech brought an impressive resume (many roles at the Met and elsewhere) but a voice that, although potent enough to fill the hall with no difficulty, was on the side of raw and wobbly. In the third act, the strain finally set in and he had to pull back somewhat. As Walther, Daniel Sumegi was resonant and snarling, as was Matthew Lau as his henchman Wurm. Mezzo-sopranos Kyle Engler (familiar to local audiences, most recently in the premiere of Scott Wheeler's new opera Democracy) and Gigi Mitchell-Velasco (who was so good as Parséïs in Esclarmonde) brought elegance and vocal richness in the supporting cast. All in all, it was a very satisfying evening of opera, without all the bells and whistles.

Next season, Antony Walker and the Washington Concert Opera will present performances of Puccini's Il Tabarro and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, together as a double bill on October 30, 2005 (since neither is particularly rare on the stage, we wonder why), and something truly to be welcomed, Rossini's Tancredi, with highly anticipated performances by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and tenor Lawrence Brownlee, on April 2, 2006. We'll remind you when the time comes.

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