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With Washington Opera’s fall season under his belt and the Eisenhower rep in full swing, Placido Domingo looks to be playing the continuity card pretty heavily. The traditional approach to stagecraft, the mixture of chestnuts and genuine rarities, the roster of American singers, all are familiar from the the twilight years of the last administration. But Domingo’s personality has also been tellingly felt, first onstage in the oddball Il Guarany, and currently, shepherding the company through one of its rare forays into Spanish opera, Penella’s El Gato Montés.

The co-producer here is the Teatro de la Zarzuela, Madrid, which, like the Volksoper, Opera Comique, D’Oyly Carte, and Goodspeed Opera House keeps alive a native light-opera tradition. Domingo was born in the proverbial theatrical trunk, performing as a child in his parents’ zarzuela troupe, and his passion for Spanish music-theater brought this production of Gato to L.A. (televised, with the tenor in the role of the matador) and now to D.C. as the first of several proposed Spanish imports. Considering that Washington Opera has flown as far as mainland China to find fresh repertoire, it’s amazing that local audiences have had to wait so long for a popular European work of such audience-friendly charm.

Technically, Gato is not a zarzuela but rather a through-composed opera, with none of zarzuela’s characteristic spoken dialogue. Stylistically though, Spanish operas and zarzuelas are very similar—think of Carmen with the Guiraud recitatives vs. Carmen with Bizet’s original spoken text. Penella’s score is a hot-blooded tunefest, steeped in the rhythm and sensuality of Spanish folk music, and with an orchestration that suggests a cross between Rodrigo’s airiness and Falla in his richer, more brooding moments. What a pleasure, after recently hearing glosses on Spanish culture by the likes of Verdi, Bizet, and D’Albert, to get the genuine article.

Gato’s libretto is one of those exasperating ones that make die-hard opera fans wonder why they bother at all. Essentially the plot of Carmen shaken, not stirred, the story’s fevered melodramatics make other revenge operas like Cavalleria Rusticana and Il Tabarro seem like Edith Wharton. Here, the gypsy girl Soleá is engaged to a nice-guy matador called “El Macareno” (more than a few audience smiles when that surtitle came up) but really loves a sensitive and misunderstood murderous thug known to all as El Gato Montés (The Wildcat). The bandito says things like, “Her love is in me like the nails in Christ’s hands,” and the bullfighter ends Act 1 with, “Mother, you are the only reality in my life”—you get the picture.

Once the suitors meet, the opera gets loopy on testosterone and our gypsy heroine moves from cast list to prop list: She might as well be another bottle of manzanilla to be passed around during the men’s pissing match. The best of the unintentional yuks comes when Wildcat informs Macareno that his only honorable option is to win a string of bullfights, then let himself be gored—otherwise he’ll just have to be murdered like a man.

It won’t be spoiling the heavily telegraphed ending to reveal that both men are doomed, one in the bullring, the other when he commands one of his own men to shoot him (an entertaining choice). Domingo and conductor Miguel Roa have decided Soleá shouldn’t die of a broken heart offstage as written, and they’ve cobbled together a new final scene out of previously used material so she can survive, a “double widow.” It’s a nice idea, and elevates the story from ludicrous to touchingly stupid.

But that score is truly a delight and couldn’t receive better advocacy than the Madrid singers give it. Soprano Ana Maria Martinez is a stunning Soleá, her almost mezzo-ish tone penetrating and wine-dark, but with a high end shot through with silver. Rafael Rojas makes a sympathetic matador, though he looks alarmingly like an Iberian Richard Tucker. His is a smallish tenor voice, but it’s loaded with passion and has a nice “ping” on the top notes. Perhaps most impressive is Eduardo Del Campo in the title role. The baritone’s star is on the rise at the Met and elsewhere, and his performance here shows why. A powerful but elegant singer, he cuts an imposing figure onstage and suggests the necessary mixture of menace and romantic restlessness. The supporting players are vocally strong, and if the cast is knee-deep in operetta preciousness and stand-and-belt tableaux, its body language suggests consistent involvement in the drama: Every gesture is alive with the curves and sinews of Spanish dance, as if some flamenco company were slumming in another medium.

Sets start off traditionally and wind up in more expressionistic realms, but seem appropriate to the work’s shifting moods. Homespun realism in the opening family gathering gives way to a hall of mirrors for the macho preening outside the bullring, projected newsreel footage of legendary matadors evokes both nostalgia and verismo violence, and a stage-filling, fairy-tale moon illuminates the sentimentalized new finale. Costumes are aptly vivid and so is the playing in the pit, Roa providing plenty of bustle and swagger.

Another rarity arrives in the form of Mozart’s romantic comedy La Finta Giardiniera, written when the composer was 18. Now, Mozart was not exactly a deadbeat at 18, so for all the sniffing and whining you hear about his teenage comedies falling far short of the later collaborations with Da Ponte, Finta turns out to be not only well wrought but an effervescent romp to boot. The web of character relationships would require the faculty of MIT to elucidate it, but suffice it to say we’re in a rustic setting, everyone is in love with the wrong (read: right) people, and a happy ending is had by all. Along the way, the boy wonder laces much of the action with the kind of melancholic darkness and psychic upheaval familiar from his mature operas, without losing sight of the story’s commedia roots.

The subtext is beautifully set forth right at the start by director Mark Lamos (artistic director of one of our finer regional theaters, Hartford Stage). The first image we see, in silent silhouette, is Count Belfiore knifing a noblewoman in a fit of jealous rage—the incident that sends her into hiding as the “feigned gardener” of the title and sets all the plot wheels in motion. As she falls, wounded, the stage is flooded with storybook scenery and the principals singing the mirthful opening ensemble, telling us everything’s fine and love is in the air. Lamos then turns the tables again, showing us that for all their happy-happy-joy-joy lyrics, these folks are miserable. In fact, the searing pain of courtship underlies every absurd encounter in the opera, and I can’t imagine the theme given more edge or comic irony than in all the proffering, inhaling, hurling, and dismembering of bouquets in that first number. Lamos is terrific with character-illuminating sight gags, like the mayor’s cavortings over the orchestra pit in his Act 1 love-song-cum-music-appreciation-course, or Belfiore’s literally being arm-wrestled into prenuptial submission by his new fiancée Arminda.

So why does the production run out of juice by the first act’s bizarrely comic, dark-night-of-the-soul finale? The characters find themselves groping blindly though a real/figurative cave, and pairing off into wildly inappropriate, even incestuous, couples—two finish the act apparently ready for the asylum. Yet Lamos backs off, and all that potential for danger and delirium is rendered inert, almost polite.

Unfortunately, Act 2 follows suit, with none of the opportunities for physical comedy, like Arminda’s combative jealousy aria, explored. The singers are generally left to stalk the stage as their characters are tormented by personal demons. It’s typical of Mozart’s operatic structuring to establish relationships early on through a profusion of ensembles, and to narrow his focus down to individual characters with a sequence of reflective, often conflicted, arias in the last act. These arias are what give Mozart’s stage works much of their emotional resonance, but in three-hour-plus pieces they’re also places where action and audience interest can drag. Lamos is certainly on defensible ground keeping his second act staging clean and direct, but he’s so damned inventive in Act 1 that you can’t help wishing for greater virtuosity, for even more flashes of insight, later in the evening.

To say the cast is at home in the style is perhaps less than surprising in this golden age of Mozart singing. As always, there are standouts—Beth Clayton’s bright, agile mezzo and considerable boyish charm in the trouser role of Ramiro, or the performance of the servant Nardo by baritone Victor Benedetti, hale and hearty enough to suggest a major career ahead—but even the less consistent singers make a strong impression. Soprano Katerina Beranová, for example, works so hard to produce beautiful vocal effects that she’s prone to some rather odd phrasing and drifting intonation, but her sound is pretty gorgeous. Michael Myers is in typically variable form, robust singing alternating with phrases where the voice almost disappears completely, but what a pleasure to hear a virile, imaginatively engaged performer in a role often taken by aging character tenors.

What really propels the production onto another plane of energy and expression, though, is Patrick Summers’ conducting. Tempos are fleet, rhythms smartly accented, phrasing spick-and-span but loaded with color: The guy’s obviously done his period-performance homework. Mozart’s sonority here, more string- than wind-based, is a potential snakepit for any less-than-perfect chamber orchestra in the bone-dry Eisenhower acoustic. Summers plays the hall well, finding an authenticist leanness of tone without sacrificing the attractive sheen on the upper strings.

The production comes to us via the adventuresome Glimmerglass Opera, and we can only hope some of its truly theatrically daring work makes it down here. Meanwhile, D.C. has an admirable production of an underrated Mozart opera, which, had directorial brilliance not gone south in the second half, might have rated as the finest Mozart production seen here in years.

(Note: Marguerite Krull replaces Beth Clayton Jan. 31 and Feb. 6; Maria Fortuna replaces Katerina Beranová on the above dates, as well as Feb. 13.)

In the Unjustly Neglected Opera sweepstakes, Douglas Moore’s 1956 The Ballad of Baby Doe ranks high. It’s one of the more frequently performed American operas, but there, of course, lies the rub. Opera in America, at least as far as making big bucks is concerned, is a Puccini industry (with grudging nods to a handful of other works), and the further companies venture beyond that opulent, ever-hummable domain, the more they risk tumbleweeds blowing through their ticket lobbies. Conservative composers such as Moore and his like-minded colleagues Barber, Menotti, Floyd, and Beeson have had some success creating a neo-Puccinian American tradition. But let’s face it: Susannah and the Consul will never outstrip Bohème and Turandot at the box office. Blame it on the hegemony of Broadway musicals. Or decades of badly translated foreign works scaring audiences away from English as a suitable operatic language. Or just plain fear of 20th-century “serious” music.

Actually, the biggest obstacle to American opera taking hold is the self-perpetuating notion that the artform is some rarefied import of “superior” European culture, like cabernet sauvignon or Milanese haute couture. That kind of elitism is especially ridiculous in the case of Baby Doe. The ’50s boasted a lot of musical cross-pollination, with new operas running on Broadway and works in the older, Broadway operetta tradition opening at regional opera houses. Baby Doe draws together American folk song, musical comedy, and grand opera into a seamless and approachable whole. John Latouche’s libretto, musicalized in the most conversational way, refuses to insult its audience’s intelligence. The action moves swiftly, there is a welcome lack of posturing and padding in confrontation scenes—characters go at each other with all their emotional artillery—and moments of reflection carry touching weight. It’s specious reasoning to keep such an accessible piece out of the standard rep because it tries to embrace different styles and communicate in its own language.

Washington Opera’s track record with American composers is a solid one, and the new administration has pledged to continue producing their work. It’s a good 25 years since the company could be called cutting-edge in repertory choices, but, within conservative confines, it has given a lot of home-grown writing a necessary hearing. And “home-grown” is the operative word with Baby Doe. An opera firmly in the “based on actual events” genre, it follows the late-19th-century romance of Colorado silver tycoon (and, briefly, Senator) Horace Tabor and the “miners’ sweetheart” Elizabeth “Baby” Doe. The couple is introduced to us as your basic philanderer and gold digger, both mired in unhappy marriages, but they blossom into the Tristan and Isolde of the Rockies: a great love that society can’t accept, but that endures beyond death and, worse, bankruptcy. With its subplot about Congress’ fiscal wrangling, appearances by the likes of President Chester A. Arthur and McKinley-challenger William Jennings Bryan—not to mention the big party scene at the Willard Hotel—Moore’s opera couldn’t be better suited to inauguration month.

The musical end of things is once again in terrific hands. Keith Lockhart recently shot to world fame when he was appointed the new music director of the Boston Pops. As with any “instant” success, of course, years of fine, less visible work tend to be obscured. So while the publicity machinery goes on about his youth and eligible bachelorhood and knack for bringing big-band tunes to life, it leaves out his opera experience, not to mention years as a symphonic conductor, conservatory professor, and director of a significant chamber orchestra. His experience shows in the pit, in the energy, easy lyricism, crystal-clear balances, and ability to pull all those stylistic threads into a cohesive fabric. (I can’t remember ever hearing so vividly the little rhythmic patterns and brass figurations that recall early-career Weill and show a mordant wit lacking in most of the neo-romantic repertoire.)

Baby Doe needs a cast of true singing-actors to achieve its full effect, and it certainly gets one here. Baby is not a piece-o’-cake ingenue role, however ingenuously lyrical her music may be. The soprano is regularly expected to lob isolated, stratospheric high notes into the air as sweetly and softly as possible and end the evening with an aria of soul-baring intensity. Elisabeth Comeaux has a very small, compact voice, but it’s a lovely one and she puts it to telling dramatic effect. She’s also a compelling actress, and her performance is memorable as much for the quiet dignity she brings to the role as for her coquettishness. At the other end of Tabor’s amorous life stands his first wife Augusta, who dominates every scene she’s in as surely as she dominates their marriage. Moore gets good dramatic mileage out of Augusta’s devastation at Tabor’s remarriage to Baby, but the role can easily become crabbed and humorless in insensitive hands. No danger of that here, as Phyllis Pancella finds myriad ways of expressing romantic hurt and stifled desire, even finding a wry strain in Augusta’s world-weariness. The singer makes her final aria’s struggle between wounded pride and vestigial love for the ruined Tabor a gripping piece of character work, and sings it with warmth and fine technique. In a cast that really has no weak links, Kimm Julian deserves special praise for making Bryan’s silver-standard stump-speech an unexpectedly dazzling vocal moment.

And what a pleasure to see Richard Stilwell commanding the stage again in a juicy lead. The baritone was a fixture on American stages 20 years ago, gracing more than a few contemporary American works, but he’s been seen less frequently in recent years. Tabor is a wonderful role for him. His burnished sound is seemingly ageless, his delivery as clear and natural as a Broadway veteran’s. Most important, he makes Tabor’s emotional journey a moving spectacle—the Charles Foster Kane smile twinkling and mischievous in his flush days, growing more strained with the years, and practically painted on by the end. In the beautifully acted final scene, with an aging and destitute Tabor reviewing his life as he dies in the empty Colorado opera house he once built, that Barrymore face of Stilwell’s seems to crack and fade from view as we watch.

That epilogue forms the basis of the production concept. Director Roman Terleckyj has reimagined the progress of Tabor’s life as a series of scenes on an opera stage within an opera stage, which makes for an arresting opening image: A 19th-century audience gathers on stage as members of the 20th-century audience find their seats in the house. But conceptual stagings must illuminate the material and be carried through with clarity and consistency, and there’s just too much in this Baby Doe that seems half-baked. Exposition and sense of locale get lost when Scene 1 becomes a “performance piece,” and throughout the work the “opera house” set comes and goes at seemingly arbitrary times—this scene on the “stage,” the next on some naturalistic set, another taking place in limbo—with interminable set changes, necessitated by scrapping and restoring the central visual metaphor over and over again.

And why is the action unfolding in this Colorado opera house? Is the director underlining the very public nature of Tabor’s private life? Is the story supposed to take place entirely in flashback? Is the opera all in Tabor’s mind, and if so, who are those people in the onstage audience? Terleckyj often has the thankless task at Washington Opera of remounting, and often cleverly restaging, revivals of other directors’ work. Perhaps when Baby Doe returns, Terleckyj can rework Terleckyj. There are some interesting ideas tumbling around here, and with a little more time and attention, this show would deserve to run for many seasons to come.CP