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Florencia en el Amazonas at the WNO

???????????????????????I’m afraid I don’t believe anything about Daniel Catán’s opera Florencia en el Amazonas. It’s been floating around for almost 20 years now, since a 1996 premiere in Houston, and a successful afterlife at other opera companies around the around the world, though mainly in the United States, where it serves a very particular function: It looks and sounds a bit like an opera, checking off all the boxes of what opera is supposed to be and do, without presenting any real theatrical, musical or emotional challenges. Catán’s rather meager drama opened The Washington National Opera’s 2014-15 season on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

It is inspired by the writings the Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though even the program booklet doesn’t tell us exactly what he contributed. In a “Letter from the Artistic Director,” Francesca Zambello writes: “He helped our team to plan and create the tale of the libretto which was executed by his student Marcela and captured by the sound world of Daniel’s music.” Later in the booklet, the biography for librettist Marcella Fuentes-Berain puts it slightly differently: “In 1995 her mentor, teacher, and friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked her to write an opera, Florencia in the Amazon, composed by Daniel Catán.”

Perhaps no contradiction there, but a good deal of vagueness about what “inspired by the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” actually means. I don’t detect much of Marquez’s voice, narrative adventure or grandeur of spirit in the story or the libretto. To my ear, there is about as much genuine Marquez in this opera as there is Giorgio Vasari in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The closest narrative comparison is the old Saturday-night television pairing of The Love Boat with Fantasy Island. The basic structure is identical: The “El Dorado,” a paddle steamboat plying the waters of the Amazon, is boarding passengers for a run to the town of Manaus, and some mysterious power inherent in both the boat and the river promise life changes for all involved. The guests—two frustrated young people seeking love; an older married couple who have soured on their marriage; a mysterious woman of a certain age hoping to recapture the flame of an old romance—arrive, and we are introduced to them in a succession of short scenes. These vignettes are dutifully and predictably developed, one by one, before the characters are intertwined in ensembles; then the river grows angry and the act ends with the boat adrift and no one certain of the morrow.

It was also so dreadfully stale, so second-rate TV, that I thought for a moment that the second act would deconstruct the drivel, propel the opera into the world of critical parody or ironic fantasy. Perhaps it would do to the conventions of television what Anne Sexton did to the conventions of fairy tale. But there were no transformations. The opera continues just as it began, borrowing shamelessly but with no vitality, with plot twists that strain the credulity of even the most ardent fan of Magic Realism.

There are a few decent ensembles near the end of the first act, and a credible attempt at a kind of Straussian big soprano number at the end of the second. But Catán’s music is otherwise a stew of post-romantic clichés, a lot of fussy orchestral exoticism, and text setting that is mostly embedded within the orchestral fabric. Nobody sounds out of place, or at odds with the musical consensus, but there’s no particular distinction to anything they’re singing. A handful of motifs give consistency to the otherwise moment-by-moment twists and turns of the score; characters, especially Florencia (sung by soprano Christine Goerke), sometimes echo these motifs, brief, urgent little cells of melodic material reminiscent of 1970s pop tunes, that are scattered throughout but never developed into anything satisfying. Genuine characters never emerge because their vocal lines never really break free of the orchestral palette.

The directing, by Zambello—whose work is often trenchantly insightful—is a surprising disappointment. Five dancers, dressed in loin clothes and with feather headdresses, portray mischievous but ultimately benign spirits of the river. They are also astonishingly outdated avatars of the colonialist fantasy, erotic and ideological projections of danger, innocence and sexual allure onto the Native other. Pity poor Dan Snyder who can’t get anyone to believe that the “Redskins” is an honorific celebration of Native Americans; he would certainly love the carte blanche that opera audiences will give to these offensive caricatures (because no one holds opera to a higher standard). When cholera is discovered in the town of Manaus—from afar and through some kind of epidemiological supersensory powers of vision—the river spirits start carrying coffins through the river. It wasn’t easy to stifle laughter. A final scene in which Florencia may mutate into a giant butterfly, perhaps a nod to Strauss’s Daphne though not in any substantial musical way, is also a bit of a howler.

Despite this ridiculous material, the performers deserve recognition. Goerke was a dignified presence, and sang with steadiness and emotional commitment. Particularly impressive was the young soprano Andrea Carroll, who sang Rosalba. The voice is bright, clear and beautifully produced, and though she didn’t have much to work with, she made her character relatively convincing. As Paula, the embittered married woman floundering in a tempestuous marriage, the Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera was also a powerful presence. Baritone Norman Garrett sang the role of Riolobo with a rich, full, sonorous voice and plenty of athleticism. Riolobo is another river spirit, who also does double duty as a kind of ship’s purser and Greek chorus. But the role feels perilously close to the clichés of musical theater and racial stereotype (the supposedly mystical connections between race, the natural landscape and animist forces).

Keeping it all together, deftly and with a sure hand, was conductor Carolyn Kuan. It was Kuan’s debut at the WNO and her skill negotiating this thankless task makes one hope she will be invited back to conduct actual music at some point.

Throughout the evening, I kept thinking of Alban Berg. Not every evening at the opera has to be Lulu or Wozzeck, and thank God for that. But the only way I can describe my disappointment is to consider the opera as part of a tradition that includes Lulu and Wozzeck, and other 20th-century operas of serious ambition and artistic stature. And Florencia doesn’t belong to that lineage. There is no authenticity here, no honest emotion, no credible drama, no reason for the audience to care or engage. This is a fabrication meant to serve as a placeholder for a real opera. That’s why one can’t just give it a pass, or construct half-hearted apologias for its mediocrity. Producing Florencia meant not producing something else. And that is a waste of resources.

Photograph by Scott Suchman, courtesy the Washington National Opera

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La forza del destino at the Washington National Opera

The Force of DestinyVerdi’s La forza del destino lingers in the mind as one of those late mid-career messes, a giant cauldron of opera overflowing with musical inspiration but stewed up with a super-heated libretto and way too many melodramatic plots twists. It feels like we never see it on stage, though we know it in bits and pieces, its famous overture (turned into folk music in Claude Berri’s Pagnol films of the 1980s) and its arias, especially “Pace, pace mio Dio,” a regular of soprano recital programs.
    It’s good to see it at the Washington National Opera in a stylish and often sexy production, directed by WNO artistic head Francesca Zambello and beautifully designed by Peter J. Davison. Although the production has casting problems throughout, the show nevertheless works, making a strong case not just that Forza has great material, but that is a coherent, cohesive opera, building to dramatic unity despite or because of its many divagations. By the end of this tale of vengeance, shame and thwarted forgiveness, the piece takes on some of the primal power of Greek drama, breathless and relentless, like Aeschylus’s Euminides, or Sophocle’s Electra.
    The production updates the setting to what has become the standard vision of the operatic present tense, with neon lighting and lots of flesh-revealing sexy costumes, though a gray, formal sense of the 19th century lingers around the edges. The stage pictures are compelling, an enormous dining room for the first act, a Times Square vision of fleshpots for the beginning of the second, and a gritty, graffiti splattered urban alley for the monastery scenes. Each one is meticulously realized, and only moderately discordant with the more historically specific references of the libretto.
    Dramatically, the hallmark is energy, and a nuanced sense of dark comedy always in the background. Valeriano Lanchas, as Brother Melitone, sang the most explicitly comic role, and conveyed the officious bumbling of his character without caricature. Like a big sprawling 19th-century novel, there are small strains of muted comedy throughout the opera, and it’s impressive that Zambello finds them without tipping the scales to smug mockery of the libretto’s easily ridiculed excesses. Even so, there was laughter in the house several times on Saturday evening, which is frustrating and silly. There are conventions to 19th-century drama just like any other art form or period style, and one convention is that intensifying the dramatic conflict takes precedence over strict verisimilitude. No one laughs at Van Gogh because he intensifies color and stylizes brush work to heighten visual impact. Why is melodrama treated as such a bastard form?
    Soprano Adina Aaron, as Leonora, sang with remarkably energy, unflagging dramatic intensity and vocal abandon. Even at the end of a long evening (Forza stretches on to three hours), tenor Giancarlo Monsalve and baritone Mark Delavan egged each other on through the opera’s crucial final scenes, when the possibility of redemption is agonizingly close, but squandered again and again by hatred and emotional insecurity. The opera lives or dies on the believability of its last act, in which years of animosity, regret and self loathing are finally felt in their full, corrosive power. The cast gets high marks for constantly pushing this study in relentless forward motion always forward, with exuberant spirits and total commitment.
    But not one of them is entirely vocally satisfying, and several of them lead one to be quite concerned about vocal longevity. Aaron is an exciting singer and fine actress, but too much given to vocal effects, to low notes with a lot of bite, and impressive but perhaps mannered diminuendos and crescendos on top tones. One wished for a simpler, more lyrical, more direct line, with attention to continuity and legato. I hope she can continue to do everyone of these impressive vocal feats twenty years from now; and I hope they are better integrated into a more natural sense of style. Monsalve looks the part and sings with intensity, but when pushing his voice, very few notes are hit directly, but come with little helper tones just before attack, a bad habit that makes tenors such as Roberto Alagna very hard to listen to unless the only thing you want is volume. As Preziosilla, mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze was physically a seductive, boisterously sexual presence, but only approximate to the musical line in her lower register. I often couldn’t make out what she was singing.
    As for conductor Xian Zhang, making her WNO debut, it’s hard to be certain. The overture (displaced to serve as an entr’acte between Acts I and II) was deftly done, dramatic and detailed. But the first act was a mess, and often the beat felt spongy. One heard more problems–tempo disagreements and ensemble smudges–than there should be when opera is made at this level, and yet the overall effect was often exciting. And the orchestra sounds very well these days. So the jury is out.
    But this show remains worthwhile despite serious musical misgivings. Verdi’s experimental genius, his restless creativity, shines through. That alone is worth the investment.

Photograph: Adina Aaron as Donna Leonora of Vargas, by Scott Suchman for WNO

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Tristan und Isolde at the WNO

After all the drama surrounding Deborah Voigt’s withdrawal as Isolde in the Washington National Opera’s opening production, “Tristan und Isolde,” the company came back with a solidly cast production that was enormously affecting. In rehearsals, it seems Voigt found the role too much for the current state of her voice and dropped out over Labor Day weekend. She spoke candidly about the decision with my colleague, Anne Midgette, in an article many of us found a model for how to handle a tough, potentially humiliating situation: straight on, with grace and humor. She left her fans with happy memories of a tough, honest and no-nonsense artist.

The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin replaced Voigt, and while it might have been disappointing to anyone who compared Theorin with memories of Voigt in her prime, it was nonetheless an entirely creditable, well-acted and emotionally engaged performance. Theorin has two voices: There is a lovely, intimate instrument, small and flexible, with golden hues; and a larger, more powerful sound that gets turned on from time to time when she needs the power. This second voice, used judiciously, allows the singer to negotiate all the Wagnerian essentials, but it doesn’t have a lot of color or character, and sometimes it seems a bit disconnected from the smaller instrument, as if the two voices aren’t quite on the same continuum. But it’s not shrill, or forced either, and it certainly cuts through the orchestra at all the requisite moments. Theorin is clearly comfortable with this role, especially its psychological progression from manic, wounded girl to besotted lover to mature, determined, self-controlled woman. The Liebestod, the extended final aria in which Isolde follows Tristan into death through sheer force of will, wasn’t a sumptuous, overflowing sonic spectacle, but it was attentive to the drama and the text, and when she finished, Theorin simply lay down with dignity and shut down her life force. Philosophically, the “love-death” is Wagnerian pseudo-psychology at its most odious, but Theorin made it believable, without succumbing to melodrama.

Ian Storey sang Tristan, not with a ringing, heroic tenor, but with a voice more than equal to the part and, like Theorin, more powerful in the intimate moments than the grand ones. And yet, again like Theorin, the sound is never unpleasant or strained. He managed to make the Act III monologue, a rumination on desire, will and death, gripping in its philosophical intensity, and his ghastly decision to allow his wounds to flow and bleed out his own life was a horrifying moment of pure Wagnerian insanity.

Conductor Philippe Auguin and the orchestra deserve special comment. They were the real stars of the afternoon. I’m not sure I’ve heard the opera orchestra play this well: With a full-blooded, blended sound and many spectacular individual solos, especially from the cor anglais and bass clarinet. The tempos were fast but not manic, and the pacing–the push and pull of Wagnerian time–was natural and the string sound deliciously muscular.

The Chilean baritone, Javier Arrey, whom I admired at this summer’s Castleton Festival (as Iago), sang the small role of Melot, but sang it so clearly, cleanly and with such a robust sound it made a strong favorable impression. And Yuri Gorodetski as both the Act I sailor and the Act III shepherd was a delight.

The production is simple, with a single basic set (credited, mysteriously, not to a designer but simply “Opera Australia”) serving for all three acts. Diaphanous curtains frame the action, which takes place on a transparent deck suspended from cables that suggest a ship’s rigging. The lighting is blunt and colorful, following the cues of Wagner’s text, so obsessed with the portentous references to night and day. Neil Armfield’s direction was smart and efficient, though a couple of key moments, especially the discovery of the lovers by King Mark and his minions in Act II, were anti-climactic.

Quibbles aside, the opera worked both musically and dramatically. “Tristan,” is a long show, and it can be a dreadfully static one. But Auguin, and an intelligent cast, made it feel radical, intense and desperate. 

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Puccini’s Manon Lescaut

    The star of the show is, of course, soprano Patricia Racette, who added the title role to her repertory for the first time last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Racette is a favorite at the Washington National Opera, perhaps as close to a house soprano as we’re likely to get. I loved her in the 2011 Tosca, and the 2009 Peter Grimes, and still remember her searing performance in the premiere of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline in Santa Fe in 1996.
    Racette isn’t a naturally gifted singer, but rises to greatness through force of will, commitment, technique and passionate intensity. Is her voice the most sensuously beautiful? No, but she can darken it to chilling effect, and she has wonderful control over its dynamic range. It is at its most lovely when deployed in intimate passages, softly, with a rounder, warmer tone. Pushed to greater volume in the upper range, the voice has a pronounced vibrato, but it’s not a vibrato that interferes with a clear sense of pitch. You wish the slight throbbing sound wasn’t there, but then that feels like quibbling because the vibrato never gets in the way of the singer’s expression and communication.
    She is a fine actress, too, and never performs as if the singing is all that’s required. Her acting goes deep. Not content merely with the well-timed gesture, Racette fully embodies her characters, in her posture, movement and silences. Racette is now in her mid-40s, but the Manon who flounced on stage in Act I was very much the girl who Prevost tells us was “even younger” than her 17-year-old lover Des Grieux. Throughout this and the next act–when the plot puts the young lovers on a rapid descent into misery and abjection–Racette’s coquettishness was entirely believable.
    It also easy to be enthusiastic about the baritone Giorgio Caoduro, who sang Manon’s brother (and pimp) Lescaut. Caodoru is a dynamic presence on stage, athletic and alert to the drama, and he sings with a pleasing voice and easy facility.
    Beyond that, however, the production gets weaker. John Pascoe’s 2007 staging is aggressively ugly at times, especially in the first act, which looks like it fell off the back of a second-rate bus-and-truck company. The central staircase is too large and intrusive, and makes the space feel cluttered, constricting rather than opening up possibilities for stage movement. The flower garlands and other kitschy touches suggest the unapologetic camp of a ballet set. Larger mirrors don’t seem to add much beyond more visual dissonance. A sparer approach to Act II helped and the blasted desert of Act IV was effective. The director might consider refining the stage business in Act III, in which Lescaut and Des Grieux make a failed attempt to rescue Manon from the soldiers who are leading her to exile. There was a lot of shuffling without much purpose or clarity.
    As Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev got off to a bumpy start (the first several minutes of Act I need some serious rehearsal on everyone’s part). His voice blooms only when he throws himself into the red-blooded declamation of Puccini at his most lyrically intense. If the music doesn’t call for ardor, Chanev’s production feels scattered and choppy. But the opera builds throughout its four acts, almost as if Puccini, in his first great work, was learning moment by moment how to be Puccini. And as it builds in intensity, the tenor is given more and more of the spotlight. By the end, Chanev was in his comfort zone and his performance made a stronger impression.
    One can’t go to the opera these days without being aware of the economy and the challenges faced by all opera companies, which struggle to make the most of limited budgets in lean times. Critics remain on the outside of the hard decisions about how put on a show without hemorrhaging red ink. But I can’t help feel that there was a leaner, meaner, and yet more dramatically powerful way to stage this Manon Lescaut. Yes, the costumes were lovely and sumptuous, but they aren’t really necessary. More could be left to imagination, which always is kinder to the mise en scene than cheap efforts at luxury.
    Parting thought: Manon Lescaut calls out for new cinematic treatment. If the dreadful Les Miserables can triumph at the box office, couldn’t Manon (with or without music by Puccini or Massenet) have a decent run? The bones of the story felt as fresh last night as they must have in the 1730s.

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Un ballo in maschera at Washington National Opera

Last night, I took in the last performance of the Washington National Opera’s season-opener, Un ballo in maschera, by Verdi. I’ve always put Ballo in the same category as Il Trovatore, a musically infectious work with a silly libretto. But I came to respect the work, and its libretto by Antonio Somma (after Scribe), a lot more after seeing this version.

The production is returned to Verdi’s original conception, set in Sweden, with the main tenor playing Gustavo III, a fun-loving, benevolent king, rather than Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick and governor of Boston (in the compromise version which Verdi produced under the duress of censorship). The general sense is that by transferring the action to Boston, Verdi simply changed a few names. But while the music remained intact, it simply makes a lot more sense as a reflection of ideas about kingship than it does as an “American” opera with a governor beset by treasonous colonists. There is a remarkable amount of substance transferred intact from Scribe to Somma, especially when it comes to analyzing why a king may be beloved in some circles and loathed in others, esteemed for both generosity and recklessness at the same time. Verdi’s suggests the fluidity of the king’s reputation in the opening chorus, in which the animated figures of the conspirators and the flowing, tender lines of the king’s supporters are passed back and forth, rather than bluntly integrated, reminding us that a king willing to break his own laws, even in the name of kindness, may be willing to break other laws for more malevolent purposes.

There is one musical moment, in particular, when you are thankful to have Ballo transported back to a royal, European court. Near the end of Act I, Scene I, a sailor whose loyalty to the king has been rewarded with a promotion, bursts into the general tumult to lead a chorus of praise to Gustavo. The melodic line is, as the Verdi scholar Julian Budden points out, basically the same as the line which the king sings upon being confronted with a fatal prophecy. Thus the praise of the people is directly linked to the kings insouciance (and reluctance to confront reality). The chorus, however, is also rather grand, far too grand and high toned for colonists praising their governor. It requires the elevated status of a king to make musical sense.

The sailor who leads the chorus, sung in this performance by Aleksey Bogdanov, was singled out for praise by my colleague Anne Midgette, in her September 13 review of the opera for The Washington Post. It was a parenthetical plaudit for a minor character. But Bogdanov made a similarly powerful impression on me as well. He has stage presence, a fine, and nicely produced, well-supported voice that held up to the challenges of singing in a large, crowd scene. And he made the sailor, in this version called Christian (Silvano in the Boston version) a genuine character, albeit a small one. It’s rare that a singer stands out with this much clarity in such a negligible part. So here’s hoping he returns in a larger one.

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Ariadne auf Naxos at the Washington National Opera

 

            Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who once lamented that overturning a law criminalizing homosexuality might lead to the invalidation of laws criminalizing masturbation, adultery and fornication, received a little lap dance on Saturday night. Location: The Washington National Opera. The purpose: To further the performance of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

            Scalia was on stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House as a VIP supernumerary, along with his colleague Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Washington’s delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton. They were part of the onstage “audience” which watches an opera—Ariadne auf Naxos—performed during the second half of this weirdly post-modern tale of backstage drama and on-stage romance. For just a few seconds, the flirtatious and resolutely promiscuous Zerbinetta—dazzlingly sung by the evening’s star, soprano Lyubov Petrova—gave Scalia his own little show during one of her robustly sexual solos. The justice looked pleased. He was, of course, merely doing his duty as a celebrity wallflower on opening night of this new-to-Washington production.

            It was one of those odd, only-inside-the-Beltway moments, and the audience howled. But the WNO’s Ariadne auf Naxos is thoroughly entertaining and this production meets its fundamental challenge: How do you stitch together Ariadne’s polar absurdities, its mix of crowd-pleasing silliness and High Art? How do you make us care about a mythological romance between abandoned Ariadne and the young god Bacchus, when we have already met them, in the piece’s lengthy prologue, as a temperamental diva and sneering tenor, both straight from opera central casting?

            Strauss and his mandarin librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, conceived Ariadne as an enactment of the tensions within the creative process of making opera. A young, idealistic composer, the sort of lad who has read his Sorrows of Young Werther and spent long winter nights with Jean Christophe, is about to premiere his new opus, Ariadne auf Naxos, which celebrates with Kierkegaardian extremity the purity of erotic and existential longing. But at the very moment his magnum opus is about to begin, a cruelly indifferent Major Domo announces that the rich patron of the spectacle has decreed that Ariadne auf Naxos will be presently concurrently with a commedia del arte farce improvised by Zerbinetta and her troupe. High Art and Escapism must coexist.

            The composer is crushed, but he isn’t immune to the charms of the irrepressibly sexual Zerbinetta. And thus begins a philosophical, musical and theatrical interpenetration of ideas: Pure love and fleeting desire, grand art and entertainment, music and narrative. Behind the scenes, Strauss is orchestrating everything and much of the pleasure of the piece is listening to the music’s suggestion of metaphysical affinities and opposites. It’s an odd and difficult confection to pull off, not least because it is also a major test of just about every voice type a composer can throw on stage.

            First seen at the Seattle Opera in 2004, this production (by Chris Alexander) has a solid conceit: Instead of a “great noble” and “the richest man in Vienna” throwing a party (as in the original libretto), we have a capricious contemporary art patron hosting a gala, complete with champagne, a sit-down meal and fireworks to begin promptly at 9 p.m. The prologue (essentially the first act) is played out back-stage at the gallery, a blandly institutional space with cinder block walls and exposed pipes and restrooms serving as dressing rooms for the evening’s stars, while the opera-within-the-opera takes place in the gallery itself, with a domineering Richard Serra sculpture serving as Ariadne’s cave.

Updating is usually reflexive, an excuse for not thinking about the mechanics of the drama. But this updating is inspired. The art world is one of the few places where one can actually see Philistinism in practice today. Everywhere else, we’re all Philistines, or at least required to pretend that we’re Philistines. Even the rich. But the art world still takes itself seriously enough to believe in taste.

            I first saw Ariadne at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with Kathleen Battle as Zerbinetta and Jessye Norman as Ariadne. It was luxury casting, but with a downside: Almost everyone else got lost in the vocal glamour. Not so with the Washington Opera, where many of the best bits come from singers in smaller roles, including Ariadne’s trio of winsome nymphs (Jennifer Lynn Waters, Cynthia Hanna, Emily Albrink) and Zerbinetta’s comedians (Nathan Herfindahl, Jason Karn, Greg Fedderly and Grigory Soloviov). Gidon Saks had all the right dramatic moves as the Music Teacher, rumpled, wise and addled.

            Petrova, as Zerbinetta, dominated among the major roles. Her coloratura is not some flute-like register unnaturally attached to a normal soprano sound. It has edge and power throughout the range, and this combined to make her Zerbinetta more than the usual brainless flirt. She was arguing her world view—take your pleasures and move on, no worries—and her vocal pyrotechnics made her a powerful philosophical force rather than a mere distraction.

            Kristine Jepson’s Composer was also more than the usual petulant teenager one so often sees in this role. Vocally, there are moments of astonishing sweetness and beauty in her tone. When she pushes it, that sweetness is lost, but the more powerful tone isn’t ugly, just less interesting. As Ariadne, Irene Theorin seemed trapped in vocal middle ground, not quite sure if this is a Strauss soprano in the Daphne mold, or one of his more Wagnerian-sized heroines. She too had moments of pure loveliness—and a lot of growl in her “totenreich” at the beginning of her soliloquy. But I left perplexed, never quite comfortable that she was comfortable in this role. As Bacchus and the Tenor, Corey Evan Rotz was replacing the announced singer. He began well, and the voice has an appealing, light but forceful tone. He stumbled at one point and that seemed to shake him but I’d like to hear him again.

            Andreas Delfs, making his WNO debut, conducted the orchestra. Delfs moved things along briskly, perhaps too briskly, especially in the opening of Ariadne’s big number. Strauss’s often very light scoring in this quasi-chamber opera exposed the orchestra, sometimes for the worse, especially with the upper string sound. But this is to quibble unnecessarily. The show works well enough from top to bottom that you can forget any of these musical trifles, and simply immerse yourself in one of Strauss’s oddest, wildest and most daring inventions.

Lyubov Petrova as Zerbinetta; image by Karin Cooper for the Washington National Opera

 

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Right-Sizing Turandot at the Washington National Opera


When the Romanian theater director Andrei Şerban produced Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005, he took an opera that thrives on intimate encounters and recast it as non-stop spectacle, a wild carnival of excess and distraction. It was a striking contrast to his quarter-century old production of Puccini’s Turandot, which turned one of the grandest of Italian operas into a chamber piece, enacted in an almost claustrophobic theater within the theater. It sounds perverse, but it was a stroke of genius. Originally staged for the Royal Opera House in London, Şerban ’s Turandot is now very well traveled, with more than 50 productions around the world.

On Saturday night, it opened again, this time at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The Washington National Opera can be clumsy when it comes to complex productions with lots of moving parts. But Şerban came to D.C. to restage his famous work, and despite a few glitches (and backstage noise) it looked tight and coherent and well choreographed (Kate Flatt).

The wisdom of Şerban’s approach, which encloses the action within a reproduction of a tiered wooden theater, with the chorus commenting on the action from the sidelines, was apparent the moment soprano Sabina Cvilak began Liu’s first act aria, “Signore, ascolta.” Liu is usually one of Puccini’s more thankless roles, a dull vision of innocence amidst a grand cavalcade of cruelty, exoticism and sensuality. She is a Chinese Micaela, the Bore of Beijing, a throw-away role for the piccola donna, with two good but not great arias that only hinder the audience’s real pleasure: The relentless forward motion of Puccini’s climaxes.

But Cvilak’s Liu was worth slowing down for. The Slovenian soprano is a fine singer, with a remarkably pure voice, a well-supported pianissimo and surprising strength when she needs it. She sang and acted with clarity and an affecting directness, which is, of course, the only way that poor Liu can be effective on stage.

Cvilak was helped by Şerban’s intimate staging. All too often Liu is lost in the crowd—her music is filled with plaintive cries to be heard (“…ascolta,” “…ascoltami”)—but not this time. And for once, Liu got some respect. Not just from the audience, which rewarded Cvilak with a well-deserved standing ovation, but from Turandot as well. Maria Guleghina’s Ice Princess seemed genuinely affected in the last act by Liu’s demonstration of love and self-sacrifice.

Without this lesson in love, delivered by the hapless little songbird, Turandot’s conversion and return to humanity makes very little sense. Liu was Puccini’s own invention, apparently fused from two minor characters who appear as slaves in Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 theater piece, the distant, original inspiration for the libretto. Puccini began his work with Liu’s Act III scene, perhaps well aware of this important moral fulcrum in an otherwise chilling and bizarre depiction of sexual frigidity married to narcissism.

Most productions of Turandot are doomed before they even begin, as producers and opera companies compete in an impossible arms race of stage spectacle. There’s no hope of winning, of course, especially with productions such as Franco Zeffirelli’s colossus at the Met—the H-bomb of Turandots—already familiar to most operas lovers. The advantage of Şerban’s approach is that it not only lets him achieve intimacy, it scales down the lavishness of the affair to reasonable proportions.

Fortunately, Şerban’s downsizing rarely disappoints, perhaps because the real dimensions of this piece are musical, and the music is heard in all its over sized glory. Which is why you need a soprano such as Maria Guleghina to sing the title role. Guleghina is a very hard worker, and she’s been a busy bee at the Met recently. But you never quite know what you’re going to get. As Abigaille, in Verdi’s Nabucco four years ago, she gave a wild, disjointed and often very shrill performance. Earlier this season, in the title role of Adriana Lecouvreur, she sounded much better, and the natural heft of the voice seemed at home in the later, heavier style of Cilea.

On Saturday, she demonstrated her usual power, and often some very affecting, more modestly scaled singing that had genuine warmth. But she seemed to be working hard to support the voice, even to the point of taking distracting breaths which broke up the line. Her acting is borrowed straight from the good old days of grand divas with crazy energy, laser-like death stares and hauteur to burn. At the end of the evening it’s clear why Guleghina seems to be everywhere today. It may not be pretty, but she gets the job done.

If tenor Darío Volonté, as Calaf, could have scaled Puccini’s music down to fit the scale of Şerban’s production, he would have been a happier singer. Volonté’s voice never cracked or wavered, but it was often lost in the din. His “Nessun dorma,” demonstrated the simplicity and forthrightness of a tenor well versed in Verdi. Volonté lacks the pure vulgar bigness necessary for Calaf, and that may not be a bad thing. As long as he doesn’t sing Calaf.

Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson might have done a little more to help him, but you can’t rejigger the sonic landscape too much (especially with smaller characters, such as Timur, sung by large-voiced singers, such as Morris Robinson). The orchestra, especially the brass, sounded sumptuous and well rehearsed, but there were problems keeping the chorus and orchestra together in ensemble passage. At least twice it seemed like things were slipping away from Wilson. But she deserves credit for clarifying the orchestral texture and drawing out some of Puccini’s delicate and easily lost refinements.

The production continues through June 4, but the sign of a man at the box office with a paper sign begging to purchase anything available isn’t a good sign for opera lovers who have purchased seats in advance. There is, however, a concert performance of the opera just added to the schedule, to be heard in Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House on June 2. Placido Domingo will conduct. This not only brings succor to a city cruelly deprived of a major opera company (a victim of the recession), it will test the validity of my comments about Şerban, above.

Soprano Sabina Cvilak, photograph by Marjan Laznik

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