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Who would have expected José Carreras to sound as good as he did at the opening performance of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly? The tenor singing the title role in this almost-never-revived 1927 rarity has to enter with vocal guns blaring and keep a heart-on-the-sleeve intensity pumping through the rest of the evening. Twenty years ago, no one would have blinked to hear Carreras knocking out high note after thrilling high note or bathing the score’s tender moments in the dark honey so characteristic of his voice in its prime.

But Carreras’ vocal cords have been to hell and back over the last two decades. When he burst on the scene in the mid-’70s, he was the golden boy, his voice noble and full of ardor, its blend of suppleness and heft falling just midway between those tenorial touchstones Pavarotti and Domingo. But even then, his glorious high notes showed physical signs of effort—the higher the note, the more his facial muscles would convulse, until he would look like a man being electrocuted. The ’80s brought the stress of an accelerated career, a series of roles far too heavy for his voice that were pushed on him by charismatic conductors like Herbert von Karajan, and a life-and-death struggle with leukemia. A bone-marrow transplant brought him a near-miraculous remission, but by the ’90s he was left with shreds of a great voice he had to husband into a viable whole. In the Three Tenors’ concerts, he has sounded elderly compared with Tenors 1 and 2, even though he’s younger than both. His will and generosity of spirit are things of wonder; his voice, unfortunately, no longer is.

What a pleasure, then, to hear at least snatches of its former radiance at the Sly premier—Carreras’ WashOp debut and his first North American staged opera performance in 12 years. In the score’s quieter pages, he still commanded the chiaroscuro shadings and sure legato phrasing we all remember. Even the big moments brought secure technique and the irreplaceable thrill of listening to a singer so at home in the style. His high notes are thinner, grittier, more nasal and metallic, and have a tendency to blare. But, by God, they’re there, delivered with the enthusiasm of a kid fresh out of the conservatory, and you just want to put your arm around his shoulders and thank the guy.

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He’s just about the only reason to give Sly a hearing, actually (though Ian DeNolfo, WashOp’s new replacement tenor of choice, should provide some thrills at the March 19 and 22 performances). Giovacchino Forzano’s libretto, loosely based on Calderón de la Barca’s play Life Is a Dream and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, takes the Christopher Sly character from the prologue of Shrew and creates a new story around him. And what a mean-spirited little tale it is. Sly, amateur poet and professional drunk, is discovered in a London pub by the Earl of Westmoreland, who thinks it would be a hoot to drag the unconscious Sly back to his palace and convince him, when he wakes up, that he’s a tycoon who’s been in a coma for 10 years. Just when Sly starts believing his good fortune and thinks the Duke’s mistress, Dolly, is really his own wife, the Duke brings everyone in to mock him, throws him into the wine cellar with his old soiled clothes and a couple of coins, and tells him to amscray. Sly is so despondent he slits his wrists with a broken wine bottle and dies in Dolly’s arms as she arrives to tell him she really loves him. Curtain.

This bonbon of pointless sadism strives for the buffoons-are-people-too pathos of Pagliacci, but plays more like a Charlie Chaplin two-reeler that Goethe’s Young Werther has been unceremoniously dumped into. The score by Wolf-Ferrari—an operatic footnote best known for his exposé of cigarette-smoking women, The Secret of Susanna—is a wan one indeed. Act 2 has most of the musical interest, with its liberal borrowings from Richard Strauss, the French impressionists, the Russian late Romantics, and the Italian circus. But you have to wade through a lot of meandering material to get to the juicier stuff. In the first act, the melodic line is strangely crabbed and short-winded—Puccini punctuated by a Weillian pungency—and Act 3 trades on verismo clichés more memorably handled by other turn-of-the-century Italians.

Conductor Heinz Fricke does what he can with the score, generating a nicely wry tone in Act 2. The cast is solid from top to bottom, but even the more substantial roles are given little music of distinction for singers to sink their teeth into. Gregory Yurisich, for example, left a much deeper impression as Tonio in last season’s Pagliacci than in the underwritten part of Westmoreland in Sly. Elisabete Matos has more to do as Dolly and brings a soprano of some punch to her music, but the fruity tone and vinegary top notes recall the third-string Italian “house” singers who used to record the dramatic soprano repertoire for small LP labels in the ’40s and ’50s.

Marta Domingo tries to direct around the general sleepiness of the piece. (I imagine she’s responsible for the quote from Life Is a Dream that’s writ large, in Spanish and English, across the stage scrim.) But her choreographed antics for Act 1’s pub crowd is busy, precious, and often unfocused. Ditto the blocking of the palace schemers in the second act. As for Carreras—who’s never been much of a funny guy onstage and who looks engaged only when a director really goes to work on him—he moves through the opera pretty poker-faced, though he works his aging lover-boy looks well in brooding little fits of mugging. Designer Michael Scott provides some lift with Act 2 sets and costumes that look modeled on Leon Bakst’s designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Using the walls and ceiling as projection surfaces, he layers in all manner of witty imagery and dancing light shows to complement the faux-Arabian clothes and backdrops. The work this designer has done on Sly and on WashOp’s Samson et Dalilah last fall is so much more exciting than the big-budget naturalism of his Puccini designs for the Met. Let’s hope he returns to D.C. in future seasons.

Speaking of which, WashOp has announced its 1999-2000 season. Press reports have been coming forth expressing the company’s concerns that it has grown too fast too soon. (Producing Boris Godunov and Tristan und Isolde back to back is akin to running a 10K in the morning and another after lunch.) So it should come as no surprise that next season will be a less challenging affair, with a more accessible repertoire and one less production on the roster. Mercifully, at least, WashOp is not returning to the all-fluff, all-the-time nonsense we had to sit through last season. Rigoletto, I Puritani, and Tosca are the warhorses, Susannah and Le Cid (starring Domingo) the rarely seen special events, and Julius Caesar the most likely candidate for missed opportunity. (A witty deconstruction of Julius Caesar, like Peter Sellars’ White House update, would score big the year Clinton leaves office, but don’t hold your breath waiting for Domingo to bring in a staging of such imagination.)

WashOp is saving the real highlight for the last slot. It’s criminal that we may never hear Domingo’s Otello here in Washington—he’s scheduled to sing it at the Met this fall, but has plans to retire the role soon after. But next season’s closing production of Otello should set off sparks, with Domingo conducting, José Cura in the title role, and Daniela Dessí and Justino Diaz co-starring. That’s sure to end things with a bang—a nice change from this month’s whimper. CP