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Michelle DeYoung's Seductive 'Dalila'

On Saturday, it was Washington National Opera taking up an opera performed by Washington Concert Opera, Massenet's Werther. On Sunday, the reverse happened, with Washington Concert Opera taking up an opera that has not exactly been rare around these parts, Samson et Dalila by Camille Saint-Saëns, last seen in a 2005 production at WNO, itself a rehash of the company's 1998 staging. The opera is a good choice for WCO, since the composer described it as a "dramatic oratorio," a series of often static tableaux, which makes it a little tedious in a full staging. It is not exactly a rarity, however, especially in Washington in the last decade or so, which squanders one of the advantages of concert performance of opera.

With another chance to hear mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung -- after a volcanic Judith in the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle -- that shortcoming was easy to overlook. This was DeYoung's debut as Dalila, and she brought a luscious, seductive tone to the role, purring her way through the Act I aria "Printemps qui commence," and producing a soaring tone covering the full compass from high G down to low B♭ in the big cadenza moment of "Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse." The richness of sound made the slow pieces like "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix" delightfully round, buttery, sultry, and the high B♭ near the end of the second act ("Lâche!) was like a lightning bolt. DeYoung was well matched by the High Priest of bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, last heard as the best part of a Santa Fe Salome in 2006. Grimsley sang with a rousing snarl, the tone slightly nasal but with an intense edge, making his duets with Dalila the most exciting moments of the evening. Tenor Frank Porretta, stepping in for an indisposed Brandon Jovanovich, sang honorably if without much to recommend the performance beyond having made it through it. As in his undistinguished appearances in recent productions at Washington National Opera -- Un Ballo in Maschera in 2010, Tosca last fall -- Porretta started off fairly strong, struggled audibly through the second act, and revived a bit, at least on the big notes like the final high B♭, of the third. The intonation was not always good, and a shouted kind of vocal production produced took quite a toll on his voice.

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Anne Midgette, Opera review: ‘Samson et Dalila,’ by the Washington Concert Opera (Washington Post, May 15)
In the supporting cast, bass Liam Moran was strongest as the Old Hebrew, a broad sound with a slightly overactive vibrato. Conductor Antony Walker, ever resourceful, added to his repertoire of ancillary functions on the podium: after a well-publicized performance-saving stunt in which he sang one of the roles to cover an ailing singer in Aida while still conducting, he served in the first act as prompter, whispering the starts of lines to one of his singers, Kenneth Kellogg. The orchestra he assembled -- often with different personnel for the company's different performances (only two per season) -- did not sound quite as solid and well rehearsed as they have in the past. The violins had too many lapses of ensemble unity, and the oboe was troubled by rough attacks much of the night. That being said, it was impressive that Walker had at his disposal almost the full complement of instruments called for in the score: two cornets as well as two trumpets, two harps, albeit with just one tuba to cover the two ophicleide parts. The exotic parts of the score -- the many harem numbers shimmying with metallic percussion and augmented seconds, or that annoyingly long passage for glockenspiel in the third act -- lumbered and zipped with an impressive clatter. The chorus sang valiantly on the often tiresome choral numbers, complete with lots of dutiful counterpoint and vaguely liturgical modal flavors. They contributed a thrilling noise to the loudest moments.

The two operas on the next season of Washington Concert Opera will be Bellini's La Sonnambula (September 16, 2012) and Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (April 7, 2013), at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.

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