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Washington Concert Opera's 'Maria Stuarda'

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Donizetti, Maria Stuarda, B. Sills, E. Farrell, London Philharmonic Orchestra, A. Ceccato

available at Amazon
Donizetti, Maria Stuarda, J. Sutherland, H. Tourangeau, L. Pavarotti, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, R. Bonynge
Donizetti's Maria Stuarda features perhaps the best cat fight in operatic history. In what is arguably the opera's high point, at the end of the second act, Queen Elizabeth I of England reluctantly hears the plea for freedom from Mary Stuart, the younger cousin she has imprisoned. The two rivals inevitably quarrel, with increasing vitriol, until Mary flings the ignoble lineage of Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, in her cousin's face with the epithet "vil bastarda." Elizabeth, outraged, vows that now Mary's imprisonment will end only with her execution.

Washington Concert Opera closed out their season, and what has been quite a run for bel canto opera around here, with a performance of this opera on Sunday night at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. Music director Antony Walker used Donizetti's original version of the score, with dueling sopranos as the rival queens, not the revision with Mary's role transposed down for mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran. Walker, who has distinguished WCO by almost always securing some of the best singers heard in Washington, outdid himself with his two lead women, pitting a spiteful, acid-tongued Brenda Harris, who was so outstanding in WCO's Attila last season, against a sunny, high-flying, more lyrical Georgia Jarman. Harris opened with surprising sweetness in her first cavatina, saving up the snarl for the later scenes (with razor-like precision in the showpiece Quella vita a me funesta), while Jarman had some impressive pyrotechnics but most impressed with a velvety spin of tone in Mary's many slow arias.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WCO offers stunning soprano showdown: You should have been there (Washington Post, April 9)

Emily Cary, Brenda Harris: Queen for a day (Washington Examiner, April 6)
We have been listening to Internet streams of performances by American tenor Michael Spyres, and we somehow had a feeling it would be Walker's casting that brought Spyres's first live performance in the area to our ears. His voice is a breezy, light instrument with some ring when he needed it but not yet an absolute control, but with miles of potential. He also seemed the least familiar with the score, misjudging a couple of entrances. (A pity that the coincidence of this performance with some all-campus GWU student party meant that a dull roar from the surrounding streets was heard almost constantly inside the auditorium.) The ensemble, joined together for that memorable sextet at the end of the second act, was rounded out by baritone Troy Cook's Cecil, with some roar at the top; as Talbot, baritone Patrick Carfizzi, not always quite on pitch because he seemed to be trying to make a larger sound than he really needed (also the winner of the prize for chewing the non-existent scenery); and a third fine soprano we hope to hear again soon, Alexandra Loutsion, as Mary's lady-in-waiting. The WCO orchestra sounded slightly rougher in places than we remember from recent years, although from my place I could admire the single percussionist (other than the timpanist) who spent most of the night playing the cymbal (crashing one cymbal against another on a stand) and the bass drum simultaneously. The chorus, used sparingly and not particularly brilliantly by Donizetti, made a secure and full-throated sound.

It's all Verdi all the time for Washington Concert Opera next season, with performances of I Masnadieri (September 22, 2013) and Il Corsaro (March 9, 2014).

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