In the summer of 1965, the young Luciano Pavarotti went on tour in Australia with Joan Sutherland. He credited that time with the great soprano for some of the musical lessons essential to building his career. On Friday night, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey shared the stage with a young baritone and tenor, outclassing them both, yet also elevating their performance. Lindsey sang the title role of Donizetti’s “La Favorite” with the Washington Concert Opera, and was just as impressive and just as rapturously received as she when she appeared as Romeo in Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” in September 2014. But it was her larger impact on the whole performance that was most impressive.
Lindsey’s voice isn’t huge, and there are moments during ensembles when you wish it was just a smidge larger. But it is distinctive, warm and burnished, and effortlessly deployed, with a tone so lovely that the ear searches it out, even when the orchestra (conducted by Antony Walker) threatened to overwhelm her. Lindsey legato and pianissimo are magnificent, and she shapes lines almost but never quite to the point of fussiness. This was a concert performance, so she wasn’t called on to act physically, yet she acts through the voice with absolute clarity and devastating effect. She was the focus of the evening, but when singing together with the tenor Randall Bills (as Fernand) or baritone Javier Arrey (as King Alphonse), she was also a spur to her partners, drawing out more confidence, more detail and more attention to nuance from both singers. This isn’t to sleight either of the men, who are promising artists; but rather like the young Pavarotti, they were both susceptible to the improving inspiration of singing with a more fully-fledged companion.
After the performance, I spent a little time with a few of the recordings of “La Favorita” in my collection, including the 1974 Pavarotti-Cossotto and a live 1949 performance with Simionato and Di Stefano from Mexico City. Both are the Italian version, and the latter is Italian through and through, in style and spirit, with Simionato and Di Stefano snatching at the notes with a blood-curdling ferocity that wasn’t on display in the French version heard on Friday. I spent a lot of time with the Pavarotti-Cossotto discs a year ago while researching a story on the young Pavarotti for Gramophone, and I love them. But on return, and after hearing the WCO’s exciting performance, I found their studio efforts a little too clean, contained and packaged. There were plenty of small flaws in Friday’s live performance, but the effect was fully theatrical and entirely engaging.
The French “Favorite”is the original opera Donizetti cobbled together for the Paris Opera in 1840. It is generally considered superior to its Italian cousin (“the version in the composer’s native tongue is corrupt, with many of the very particular stylistic choices and refinements of the French original coarsened in a variety of ways…” writes one critic), but it’s still a rarity compared to “La Favorita.” The Washington Concert Opera performance did indeed suggest a more refined and subtle work than the one Simionato and Di Stefano devoured in Mexico City, with Walker’s conducting and Lindsey’s singing significant contributing factors. The chorus was in fine form, as was bass John Relyea as Balthazar and soprano Joelle Harvey as Ines.