It’s comedy with a capital “K” at the Eisenhower this month. Washington Opera has set up shop in the KenCen’s midsize house for its winter repertory, and, beyond the lightly scored/intimately scaled aesthetic that rules this annual season-within-a-season, the company seems especially eager these days to treat light opera as opera-lite. That the Eisenhower rep is handsomely produced and lovingly sung is a credit to WashOp’s consistent professionalism. That it doesn’t feel like much of a contrast to the lightweight offerings down the red carpet at the Opera House is less encouraging.
But, hey, everybody loves a comedy, and WashOp is multiplying the good times by three. Of course, there’s comedy and then there’s comedy. L’Elisir d’Amore and Doña Francisquita, in spite of the century and the Mediterranean dividing them, are uncanny soul mates, as pretty as they are brain-dead. But The Magic Flute is another story. Mozart’s fairy-tale plotPrince Tamino, sent by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the evil sorcerer Sarastro, finds Sarastro to be the enlightened ruler and the Queen a source of destructive evilconceals a veritable dark night of the soul that some deconstructionist stagings have provided windows onto.
Tragic weight isn’t a prerequisite, thoughfar from it, considering Flute’s origins in the 18th-century equivalent of a vaudeville houseand WashOp’s production plays it strictly as comedy. What magic there is in the show is thanks to Zack Brown (the company’s de facto house designer for years), who has stuffed the opera to bursting with visual coups. The Queen of the Night governs from a summer-stock crescent moon, her gown billowing out to the horizon, and her minions (outfitted with one foot in Valhalla and the other in the Folies Bergère) scamper over rocky embankments molded to look like so many human eyes and ears. In Sarastro’s neck of the woods, where the animal kingdom is purebred FAO Schwarz, palace guards wear actual fire on their heads and spirits fly about on a winged hand. Witty and haunting by turns, this is some of Brown’s best design work, and it constitutes the production’s chief attraction.
As comedy, the thing’s death on a soda cracker. Directed as if aimed at an audience of 5-year-olds, weighted down by Ruth and Thomas Martin’s distinctly unmagical English translation, and finished off by the all-too-familiar horror of opera singers delivering spoken dialogue like a bunch of junior-high actors, the production generates few of the laughs Mozart’s first audience enjoyed. (Granted, 200-year-old Viennese humor doesn’t readily speak to our TV nation, but a little inventive wit on the part of the translator or director can do wonders.)
Unfunny comedy is at least partly forgivable if something deeper emerges, but disturbing subtext is resolutely sidestepped here, and material that doesn’t date too well is dealt with in half measures. (Casting an African-American as Sarastro is a great idea; trying to undo the libretto’s racism by turning the Moorish slave Monostatos from a bug-eyed rapist into giggly white hunchback with a foot fetish seems to create more problems.) I’m not saying The Magic Flute should become The Tragic Flute, but just once I’d like to see a director ask why Sarastro’s enlightened male society keeps slaves and defines women as a bunch of manipulative harpies. Or address the fact that Sarastro robs the Queen of the Night of her strength and position and destroys her rather than empowers her. Or at least make the damn thing funny.
Once again, WashOp has given us a Mozart cast without a chink in its vocal armor. (Given the quality and quantity of good Mozart singers these days, the only newsworthy event would be a poorly sung production.) Special praise goes to the world-class coloratura of Mary Dunleavy’s Queen of the Night, Eric Owens’ velvet-voiced Sarastro, Theresa Santiago’s limpid phrasing as Pamina, and an unusually well-balanced group of Three Ladies. Though enamored of singing at full volume, David Miller lends Tamino an appropriately princely tone, one with both the heft and the classical poise the role requires. (It must be noted here, as for the other offerings this season, that this was merely the lineup the night I saw the show; there’s more changing of partners at the Eisenhower than in the White House internship office.)
All three Eisenhower productions, in fact, proved to be exciting tenor matches. Alfredo Portilla, as the conflicted lover Fernando in Doña Francisquita, brings to mind the long line of fine Spanish tenors gracing our opera stages in recent decades. His is a small-scale voice with a few untidy shirttails hanging out, but the passion, the seductive and thoroughly idiomatic phrasing, and the ringing high notes are all there. The remainder of the Francisquita singers (Juan Rodó’s deep-grained and commanding Lorenzo Peréz aside) were solid rather than spectacular, but all had the verve and sure sense of style born of years at Madrid’s Teatro Lírico Nacional de la Zarzuela (where this production originated). The acting wasn’t much less clunky than that in Flute, but the sense of second nature, of ownership of the Spanish text as spoken, made the broader, scenery-chewing moments seem part of a lived-in light-opera tradition.
Composer Amadeo Vives was one of the masters of the Spanish operetta tradition known as zarzuela. The plot, a sappy amalgam of Carmen and Don Pasquale, weaves its good girl/bad girl turns around the duping of an old codger in love. But musically, Vives filters Johann Strauss through the orchestral prism of late PucciniFrancisquita premiered in 1923much as Puccini himself did in La Rondine (to be seen later this season). But Francisquita, fired by the rhythms of the bolero and mazurka, is less moony than Rondine and sings with an almost inexhaustible exuberance. A delectable, if helium-headed, discovery, it certainly whets the appetite for Plácido Domingo’s promised flood of zarzuelas into the District. (Let’s hope this Spanish-themed programming won’t evaporate as quickly as the Russian operas did when Slava left Washington, and hope further that Domingo sees the bigger picture of neglected operas and imports works from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and the U.K.not to mention baroque France and Weimar Germany.)
Miguel Ortega conducts with a missionary zeal and really sells the piece. (Heinz Fricke’s work on the Flute podium seems sober and decorous by comparison.) Praise is also due to set designer Ezio Frigerio and lighting designer Joan Sullivan for creating a striking all-purpose plazaviewed through a grand, proscenium-filling colonnadeand bathing it in every imaginable angle of Mediterranean sunlight. Graced by Franca Squarciapino’s eye-catching costumes, this is a fine example of how to enchant within the most traditional, naturalistic framework.
Ditto the production of L’Elisir d’Amore. It’s easy to lose yourself in the glowing wheat fields, the chiaroscuro shadows of the rustic barn, the uncannily real expanse of skyagain, Sullivan’s lights are as active a participant in the event as Johan Engles’ sets and costumesand to forget that this richly hued design is being lavished on one of the most inane commedia dell’arte-based operas. Inanity hasn’t exactly stood in L’Elisir’s way, though: The opera has been an audience fave for a century and a half, and the rube appeal of this Calabrian L’il Abner shows no sign of abating. What director Stephen Lawless has cleverly done in this L.A.-Geneva co-production is steer matters away from the galumphing obviousness of the libretto and toward the breezy charms of Gaetano Donizetti’s shamelessly tuneful score.
To call L’Elisir’s characters two-dimensional is to overstate their complexity. Dulcamara, the snake-oil peddler; Nemorino, the simpleton who buys a bottle of cheap Bordeaux off him thinking it’s a love potion; Adina, the unconscionably cruel object of his desire; Belcore, the braggart soldier Adina agrees to marry just to give Nemorino a hard timeall are comic archetypes with roots in Renaissance Italian clown troupes and branches that snake into half the sitcoms on TV. But Lawless takes all that cardboard and fashions it into something wry, relaxed, and even a little bit (God forbid) sexy. He gets more mileage from Nemorino’s goofball confidence, for instance, than from the character’s more typically played bumbling idiocy. (Watching a parade of corpulent, fiftysomething Nemorinos skipping around opera-house stages over the years has definitely shortened my life). Likewise, Adina is played less as a shrew than as a vulnerable, only slightly mischievous romantic, spunky and clueless by turns. Best of all, their romance is established by a kiss early on, and that one gesture removes the smack of nastiness that so often informs their interplay.
Paula Almerares and John Osborn make a beautifully sung Adina and Nemorino, she mellowing the natural brightness of her instrument to fine effect, he showing that embracing the role’s callowness needn’t preclude vocal thrills. It’s a real pleasure to hear a tenor with the sweetness, focus, and sensitivity not to maul a graceful aria like “Una furtiva lagrima,” who scores his emotional points through, rather than in spite of, the music. Erwin Schrott was another casting coup as Dulcamara, decades younger than the norm and sung with punch and vibrancy. Add Oziel Garza-Ornelas’ disaffected smoothie of a Belcore and conducting by John Keenan that presumes musical depths where there aren’t many, and you have the equivalent of cotton candy served in the finest Waterford crystal bowl.
I suppose this is the part of the review where I’m expected to indulge in my usual whining about “lack of substance”to go on about the empty beauties of the Eisenhower rep, a troika of shiny baubles so devoid of substance you half expect them to shatter as you watch them. But how can I argue with success? You can’t get near a ticket to any of these shows. WashOp has designed them for easy consumption and quick digestion, and D.C. audiences have embraced them in a grateful and giddy rush. And why not? After a withering day in the Washington bureaucracy, what patron wants to think when he or she can be lulled into a euphonious stupor? WashOp used to have compelling things to say, but I guess it wasn’t saying them to oversold houses. It’ll be interesting to see what’s being planned for next season and whether WashOp has given up completely on being a company that thinks, that explores, that matters. Meanwhile, who can begrudge it a few million bucks’ worth of masterfully fluffed fluff?CP