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Summer Opera: La Cenerentola at Wolf Trap

Filene Center at night, Wolf Trap, August 20, 2005The Wolf Trap Opera Company is another group that presents operas in Washington in the summer, with young and lesser-known singers. The disadvantage the group faces is their venue, an outdoor theater in a national park that is a long drive into Virginia from the District of Columbia. Outdoor opera is nice in Santa Fe, where the cool evening air of the desert makes people put on sweaters. Not so in the swamp of the Washington area, where the humidity and evening heat can be so oppressive that I am amazed that anyone goes to Wolf Trap to hear opera. The breeze, if there is any at all, is likely to feel warm and moist, and it does not always reach the center of the auditorium.

Yet people do go to Wolf Trap, just as they did this Saturday night, August 20, to sit through three hours of Rossini's charming comic opera La Cenerentola. According to the Wolf Trap Opera Company blog, written by company director Kim Pensinger Witman (yes, this may be a first), budget concerns required cutting a multiple-performance, staged Cenerentola down to a single-performance, semi-staged one, probably in order to consolidate the audience into one evening and spend less money on production. People filled the orchestra and balcony seating, under a roof but open on the sides, and many sat on the sloping ground for the cheapest price of admission, but it was not sold out.

The singers at Wolf Trap are all young people who come for a summer residency, just as in similar programs at Santa Fe and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the size of the venue and the presence of the people far away on the ground means that singers and orchestra are both amplified in the cavernous Filene Center, which most people who are serious about opera know is cheating. It creates the illusion that younger singers can project well enough to fill that immense space, but in reality one cannot judge such a performance by normal acoustic standards. The amplification, which is at times disadvantageous to the voices (other than the fact that it carries them out to the lawn), may be one of the reasons for Jens's aversion to the concert version of La Bohème that he heard at Wolf Trap last summer.

Kate Lindsey (Cenerentola), Weston Hurt (Dandini), Jason Hardy (Don Magnifico), La Cenerentola, Wolf Trap Opera Company, August 20, 2005For that performance last year, the orchestra was comprised of members of the National Symphony, but not for this opera, as far as I can tell. It is usually warm and muggy outside at Wolf Trap, and this was no exception, although it was perhaps not as horrible outside as it has been earlier this summer. The orchestra played in black polo shirts and slacks, some with sandals (as did their conductor, Dean Williamson), which fits with the relaxed tone of a summer concert. The playing was good, with some problems in the winds, especially in the overture, before the clarinet and oboe players were apparently really warmed up. In the woodwind section, the standout player was piccolist David Lonkevich, joined at times by principal flutist Sara Nichols. You need a sassy and talented piccolo player for most Rossini operas, and the sound here was assured and accurate, even on the same solo in the overture that the other winds botched. This is crucial when you get to the magnificent aria that concludes the opera, "Non più mesta," which is introduced by the piccolo.

Kate Lindsey (Cenerentola), Wolf Trap Opera CompanyThe cast of singers did a fine job, considering their age and experience. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey (shown here), a native of Roanoke, Virginia, was the standout in terms of vocal richness, technical agility, and acting skills. She had most of the necessary vocal qualities for Angelina/Cenerentola, which is a very demanding role, with the only possible exception being the very lowest notes in the extended range, which sometimes were lost, even though she was amplified. That part of Ms. Lindsey's voice, which is overall really quite extraordinary for someone her age, will probably mature as she gets older, and I suspect that we will be hearing even more remarkable things from her in the future. (Her program blurb indicates that she will sing a small role in the Met's Manon, with Renée Fleming, this coming season, as well as Rosina in the Barber of Seville at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where I will hopefully be hearing her again next summer.) That she is also quite pretty does nothing but enhance her chances for greater success. She was a very believably shy, sweet, funny Cinderella, and you did not have to suspend disbelief to accept that the men of the chorus were literally bowled over when she arrived at the palace in Act II. Musically, Rossini made the role the focus of the somewhat nutty and overblown libretto (by Jacopo Ferretti), and the opera will fail quickly with a Cenerentola without the vocal goods, which was certainly not the case here.

I am not sure why male voices seem to have innately greater difficulty with rapid melismatic passages, but a lack of vocal flexibility was noticeable in all of the male soloists. This was most pronounced in the singing of Puerto Rican tenor Javier Abreu (Don Ramiro), who otherwise performed well, with some very nice high notes in spite of some strain. (He will appear as Count Libenskof in Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims at New York City Opera this fall.) Baritone Weston Hurt was a stitch as the servant Dandini, who spends the first act enjoying the role reversal when he is disguised as the Prince. Bass Jason Hardy gave an over-the-top performance (sometimes, in buffoonery, less is actually more) as Cenerentola's arrogant, corrupt, abusive father. (He will sing the role of Polyphemus in Handel's Acis and Galatea with New York City Opera next April.) Audrey Babcock and Evelyn Pollock were appropriately outrageous as the wicked stepsisters. As the wise Alidoro, who engineers Cenerentola's trip to the palace (there is no fairy godmother here, as in the more familiar version of the story found in Massenet's Cendrillon), bass-baritone Daniel Gross's voice seemed dim and swallowed to my ears, a trait that may have been made worse by the amplification. (He nevertheless received a claquish and curiously loud ovation.)

As you can see in the middle picture above, the singers acted out the story in the space between the edge of the stage and the orchestra, sometimes going behind the orchestra, too. Director Garnett Bruce did a good job of communicating the story in his staging, which was accomplished with a minimum of props. Martha Mountain's lighting design helped to keep static monotony from setting in. It was not clear what time period we were in, to judge by the costumes, but it seemed to update the story in a more or less credible way. This was the final production of the summer at Wolf Trap, but we look forward to hearing the singers that Kim Pensinger Witman and her colleagues bring to Virginia next summer.

See also the review by Joseph McLellan (Washington Post, August 22) and the review by T. L. Ponick (Washington Times, August 22).

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