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WNO at 50: Who for Whom, and How!

While Ionarts was either living the lush life in Paris or busy missing the Hesperion XXI concert in Baltimore, we have to thank George A. Pieler for helping out at the Washington National Opera's 50th Anniversary Gala.

Washington National Opera - Golden Anniversary
Fifty years is a long time for an American opera company to have run continuously, and the Washington National Opera wants to celebrate. The WNO Golden Gala Sunday night provided much excellent singing, none bad, and considerable entertainment both on stage and off. More important — aside from raising $4 million for the company — the Gala crisply defined the company’s artistic stance under General Director Placido Domingo: solid, conservative, and dedicated to maintaining reliable performance standards.

As Ionarts is playing who-for-whom these days, let’s get that out of the way first. Salvatore Licitra (‘the next Pavarotti’) was indisposed and did not appear: tenor Paul Groves, already assigned two duets in the program, filled in with “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and did a creditable, ringing and full, stentorian-tenor style job of it. Denyce Graves, scheduled to sing the Letter Song from Werther, was also indisposed; and violinist Vadim Repin, scheduled to perform two works with orchestra, performed only one (Franz Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie, a change from the better-known Sarasate version). He played this virtuoso showpiece with ample brilliance, but his tone seemed not to project well into the hall — indeed the WNO deserves a better acoustic frame than this. As a result the performance looked brilliant, but sounded merely good. Here, as elsewhere, the Opera Orchestra turned in solid performances throughout, under both Heinz Fricke and Emmanuel Villaume.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Washington Opera, at 50 - Editorial (Washington Post, March 20)

Tim Page, Onward and Upward With the Opera - Review (Washington Post, March 20)

Kevin Chaffee, National Opera celebrates 50 years with song - Fluff-piece (Washington Times, March 24)

Tim Smith, This gala had it all: glam, opera stars and Supremes (Baltimore Sun, March 21)
Galas are talent-showcases not cohesive artistic statements, and this one was no exception. A succession of aria set-pieces and a few ensembles was launched by the Seraglio overture (that was the Opera’s first-ever production), and punctuated by a narrated slide-show highlighting the WNO’s history, with a special tribute to the late Martin Feinstein, WNO head from 1980 to 1996. This retrospective material usefully reminded us how comparatively adventurous the company was in its early years: Stravinsky, Britten, Delius, and Ginastera, highlighted in the narrative but wholly absent from the program.

Further punctuation came from theatrical set-pieces, including the Broadway-Opera crossover created by Marvin Hamlisch and Sheldon Harnick for the occasion: “The Audition,” a nearly plotless pastiche which opened the second half. The very talented Kristin Chenoweth, joined by Domingo and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Trevor Scheunemann, put this slender, tuneful, rather catchy material across with aplomb, and provided Mr. Domingo not just with a chance to spoof himself (“it’s great to be king”) but a bit of Three Tenors material neatly spliced in. The message was “Passion” in art, the key number in “The Audition,” reminding everyone why they were there. The usual Supreme Court Justices (Breyer, Scalia, and a wide-awake Ginsburg) joined in.

The other planned set piece concluded Part One of the evening, as Samuel Ramey reprised his favorite role of Mefistofeles (Boito), accompanied by the very fine Opera Chorus in full regalia (were those party hats, or horns?) and devilish light-show (red sky and fireworks). Ramey, in fine voice albeit with a sometimes obtrusive vibrato, hammed it up in the best sense, traversing the stage while directing the chorus and spinning the inflatable globe that symbolized his control over…well, all of us. Ringling Brothers should give this number a look.

Alan Held provided the other theatrical moment, performing the “Catalog Aria” from Don Giovanni, complete with phone directory (was it the One Book?), acting out the part while providing some of the best singing of the evening.

As for the set-piece arias, to my ears there were two clear standouts. Juan Diego Florez in Part One delivered Donizetti’s “T’amo qual s’ama un angelo” from Lucrezia Borgia in superb voice, attending to every detail of dynamics and phrasing, and simply could not have been better. A good omen perhaps for his Lindoro in L’Italiana in Algeri, which WNO presents in May. In Part Two, Elizabeth Futral’s scintillating “Je veux vivre dan le rêve” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette took the palm. Anja Kampe in Verdi’s “Pace, pace”, Carlos Alvarez in “Pieto, rispetto” from Macbeth, and Paul Groves and Marc Barrard in ‘The Pearl Fishers Duet’ all pleased without setting the house afire, as did John Matz in “Che Gelida Manina.”

Placido Domingo’s personal stamp was all over the evening: not only in “The Audition” but in two zarzuela numbers — a duet with Anna Netrebko from El Gato Montes and solo “No Puede Ser” from La Taberna del Puerto by Pablo Sorozabal. He was in fine, indeed remarkable voice; no allowances needed for age, or should I say experience? Netrebko, a delectable presence and in good voice, has a unique sound, a bit throaty for my taste, and I felt she manipulated her opening of “O Mio Babbino Caro” a bit too much for such a simple direct melody.

The evening concluded with a champagne ensemble from Act II of Puccini’s La Rondine performed by the Young Artists, a satisfying conclusion and telling reminder of the yeoman work of the Domingo era in training (…) the next generation of performers.

Surprisingly little Wagner — just fanfares from Die Meistersinger that echoed in the foyer, and the ‘wedding scene’ from “The Audition” brought a call for ‘the ring’ — presented as four weighty libretti. Haw haw. If that didn’t get the point across, Mr. Scheunemann read out the first title as Das Rheingold, just in case.

Lots of Verdi, lots of Puccini, a bit of French and American (Ramey in the prayer from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah), plus zarzuela and a bit of Mozart: no Strauss, or – heaven forbid – something contemporary to ruin the mood — that’s the WNO today, a mature company not taking too many risks, in contrast to the adventurous start-up of 50 years ago. An inspirational fact from the opera’s founding — for those creative types who feel confined to writing or talking about the arts, remember that Washington Opera was founded by Day Thorpe, who was…

A music critic.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Yet surely more Ionarts readers than myself wish to know: was Anna Nicole Smith present at this gala event? There is more than one kind of theater, after all.

Rune Eggpoe

Anonymous said...

The 'haw' by dictionary definition is 1. the fruit of the hawthorn, as in the famous "Glastonbury thorn", or 2. something unintelligible or inarticulate. Two 'haws' would then seem to be either two fruits, or two unintelligibilities. Your reviewer might wish to elucidate?

Mr. Fish

jfl said...

Dear Fish,

the reviewer is guiltless as - and the watery critic of this post may even know so much - the haw-haw's were slipped in by the jr.editor (jfl). 'haw haw' is the best known english representation of a fruity, somewhat unitelligible laugh. A "Haw haw" as uttered self-satisfiedly or (as here) in mockery in response to a joke that would have fallen flat were it not for the convention to laugh at it. For more details I refer to George MacDonald Fraser's scientific work on "Laughter in 19th Century Brittain and its colonies" much of which has been incorporated into the detailed editions of the Sir Harry Flashman Diaries ("The Flashman Papers Project").