From time to time, the sleepy routine of opera is shaken by a production of such imaginative force that it reminds us how powerful the art form can be: this year’s stunningly audacious Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Met, for example, or BAM’s staging of The Cave, in which Steve Reich neatly redefined opera for the 21st century. In D.C., ripple effects are still being felt from the Deutche Oper Ring that elbowed its way into the Kennedy Center between busloads of Shear Madness fans.
But revolutions are easy to spot—they’re noisy and polemical and they stand out from the stupor surrounding them. In the opera world, the revolutions are often simply a matter of creators or interpreters thinking in a new way. Washington Opera tends to sidestep such revolutions, afraid they might tamper with a comfy subscriber base. The days of George London’s adventuresome programming are long gone, and there’s little to indicate that a traditionalist like Placido Domingo will bring any cleansing fire. After all, the bottom line usually outmaneuvers the cutting edge.
Evolutions can be just as significant as revolutions, but since they don’t storm the battlements, they can be harder to see. The encouraging news is that Washington Opera may be undergoing just such an evolution. Here is a company whose bread-and-butter is Verdi, Puccini, and Italian bel canto presenting a season devoid of all three. Indeed, the only Italian opera on the roster is Viennese (Le Nozze di Figaro); the rest of the season is made up of French, German, Czech, English, and American works. More important, the repertoire is refreshingly unhackneyed, with Carmen and Figaro the only undisputed warhorses, and Tiefland, Semele, and Vanessa constituting true rarities. Better still, the latter two works, together with The Bartered Bride, are being performed as an all-English-language repertory in the intimate Eisenhower Theater. This may all sound like change at a geologic rate but, while nothing this season is likely to shock conservative tastes, the emphasis on seldom-performed works and vernacular performance would be a daring move for any American opera company.
It must be said that the Eisenhower season is a mixed bag from a dramatic point of view, but “that vision thing” makes up for a good deal, especially when the Opera House Orchestra is so much improved and singers are being engaged at such a consistently high level. Both strengths are gloriously evident in the revival of the 1980 production of George Frideric Handel’s Semele. What a smart move it was to engage Boston Baroque’s early-music scholar Martin Pearlman to conduct: Whatever is lost in the way of authentic instrument sonority is compensated for by the orchestra’s keen response to Pearlman’s rapid-fire tempos and razor-sharp phrasing. For once, the Eisenhower’s maddeningly dry acoustics are an asset.
And the singers! Semele packs enough coloratura display to outfit any three bel canto operas, and to hear an entire cast knock off the fusillade of runs, trills, and octave leaps at warp speed, with William Congreve’s text clear as a bell throughout, is an unexpected delight.
In this tale of Roman gods tangling in moral affairs, Richard Croft’s warmly lyrical tenor makes for an aptly godlike Jupiter, and as his earthly love interest, Brenda Harris brings to the title role a voice of gleaming command, able to turn playful and seductive in the showpiece aria “Myself I Shall Adore.” Doing double duty as Jupiter’s perpetually wronged wife Juno and Semele’s sister Ino, Patricia Spence shifts gears with ease, drawing ingenuousness or high dudgeon from a voice strikingly reminiscent of the young Marilyn Horne. David Daniels, a countertenor whose bright, full-throated sound avoids the reediness and underpowered low notes so common to that voice range, also impresses as Ino’s lover, Athamas. Strong work by Amy Burton and basses Kevin Langan and Thomas Paul should not go unmentioned.
The stage direction here is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair, with little imagination or emotion in evidence. That’s too bad, since the plot concerns Semele’s romance with philandering chief god Jupiter, and the destruction brought upon her by Juno’s jealousy and Semele’s own grasping ambition for immortality. Handel wrote this as a satirical jab at King George II’s mistress, Lady Yarmouth, whose agenda bore a remarkable resemblance to Semele’s. It’s hard not to feel a sense of missed opportunity when Semele is being produced blocks from a beleaguered White House where any number of would-be Semeles are presumably being dispatched daily.
The parallels are too tempting to ignore, and might have been served by the kind of bad-boy production Christopher Alden gave The Coronation of Poppea some years ago at the Terrace. As it stands, Semele lacks that staging’s pop-culture topicality, not to mention the exhilaration of the more recent street-clothes King Arthur. Closest in look to the Cologne Opera import of Handel’s Agrippina, Semele only hints at that production’s campy sendup of baroque conventions. A few halfhearted attempts at such humor aside, director Roman Terleckyj contents himself with conventions.
Semele is better served by Zack Brown’s set, a loving gloss on 18th-century stagecraft featuring quaint wing-and-drop bowers, oversize golden icons, and celestial tableaux that exude real storybook wonder, all enhanced by the antique glow of Joan Sullivan’s lights. Zeffirelli once said that designing sets for the Met involved creating beautiful “shells” that could serve the dozens of casts parading through them over the years. Washington Opera’s Semele is a graceful shell for a supremely talented cast. What a shame the director didn’t venture out of his shell a little bit more.
The set is also the star of The Bartered Bride, a Czech folk opera by Smetana that is produced far less frequently than its renown might suggest. It’s one of those “merry villager” pieces that unfolds in cottages, taverns, and town squares, and in this Canadian Opera import, a half-dozen cookie-cutter houses glide about the stage as if choreographed, then do an about-face to reveal cartoonish interiors barely large enough for one. It’s a whimsical design, and one that affords a mischievous sight gag as haywire buildings close in one by one on a hapless suitor.
That joke, having more to do with stage machinery than the story at hand, turns out to be the funniest thing all evening, but long before its appearance the show is obviously in trouble. Tempting as it is to blame the performance’s dreary progress on director Florian-Malte Leibrecht (whose half-baked expressionism nearly scuttled the company’s Un Ballo in Maschera), it must be admitted that this fluffy little tunefest is a bear to bring off. A piece of musical homespun dedicated with affection to the Czech peasant class, Bride is all rustic lyricism and lusty bonhomie—at least on paper.
Onstage, all that charm plays out as a static series of moony love duets and buffo patter songs punctuated by peasant dances that sprout up without rhyme or reason. The libretto doesn’t help either, pitching the same old story of true love overturning the best-laid wedding plans of parents and brokers. Of course, Marenka’s arranged marriage is with a hopelessly undesirable suitor, in this case the wince-making Jerry Lewis role of Vasek, a simpleton whose painful stammer is intended to produce big yuks. The miracle of this production is that Peter Blanchet can find grace and poignancy in the role without losing moments of hilarious physical comedy. His sad-sack entrance in Act II would do Harry Langdon proud, and his straight-faced, little-kid stoicism makes the evening worthwhile throughout.
The problem is that Leibrecht and his cast throw just about everything at the piece to see what’ll stick. As a result, no one seems to be in the same opera. Ann Panagulias and Mark Thomsen bring healthy young voices to Marenka and her sweetheart, Jenik, but exude such seriousness that their already melancholy opening duet becomes positively Wagnerian. That wacky marriage broker, Kecal, should provide comic relief, but Peter Strummer’s performance is so full of basso buffo mugging and so dead behind the eyes that the calculated laughs never materialize.
As it happens, Strummer looks Stanislavskyan next to Chris Owens (Marenka’s father, Krusina), whose antics derive from the Mack Sennett/Keystone Kops school of big-face acting (at least in Act I: For some reason the director has Owens change his character completely on each subsequent entrance). Watching these two hambones go at it makes one thankful for Mimi Lerner’s less-is-more turn as Marenka’s mother, Ludmilla. She’s evidently not a believer in applying comedy with a trowel, and her wry, subtle performance hints at what the production could have been.
Add to the mix a bizarre dance in which drunken merchants throw women around the stage (and they return the favor) and a traveling circus scene in which the line between intentional cheesiness and genuine ineptness is never clearly drawn, and this folksy concoction winds up sitting like a dead dumpling. Washington Opera music director Heinz Fricke does what he can in the pit, wisely stressing rhythmic vitality over spectacle in that small space. But even with his sensitive control over dynamics, his cast seems unable to project the text clearly, rendering the opera-in-English concept more a theoretical than a practical success.
There is no way to miss the words in Samuel Barber’sPulitzer Prize-winning Vanessa.The cast sings clearly much of the time, and whatever slips by is caught by the unusually thorough surtitles. That may sound like overkill, but considering Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto, one of the disappearing breed of great American opera texts, the care is well taken.
The Isak Dinesen-based story would certainly provide enough psychological complexity to any librettist worth their salt. As the curtain rises, Vanessa, shut away for 20 years in a dark, airless house of shrouded mirrors and portraits, awaits Anatol, the lover who abandoned her all those years ago. The Anatol that arrives, though, is his fortune-hunting son, and he promptly seduces Vanessa’s spinsterish niece, Erika. The girl’s ambivalence toward his noncommittal marriage proposal sends him courting Vanessa, who is only too happy to relive the Anatol romance with this new, improved model. Erika miscarries Anatol’s child (a pregnancy kept secret from others), Vanessa and Anatol leave the creepy old house to marry, and Erika, reshrouding the mirrors, decides to take Vanessa’s place living out her days alone and loveless. All the while Vanessa’s mother, the Old Baroness, keeps a silent, sullen watch.
Menotti distills this tale into poetry. The facility that this man, born and raised to adulthood in Italy, shows with the English language is remarkable. The dialogue is as succinct and intelligent here as it is in the librettos for his own compositions, The Medium, The Consul, and The Saint of Bleeker Street. He has a talent for avoiding cliché, for finding the unexpected metaphor that seems unerringly right, and as gratefully as his words fall on the ear, they sing even better.
Menotti’s libretto more than meets its match in Barber’s memorable score, the composer’s restlessly creative style is more daring and mercurial than Menotti’s often sentimental, sometimes bland, musical writing. Vanessa is grounded in the ripe romanticism of Puccini and Strauss, but Barber is not afraid to let his score drift into dreamy impressionism when the past haunts his characters, or to let dramatic conflict dictate stretches of angular dissonance. Flirting at once with traditional style and free-form modernism, the score of Vanessa both serves and deconstructs its turn-of-the-century setting, and lives up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful American operas ever written. The scarcity of revivals since its 1958 Met premiere defies comprehension, and Washington Opera’s new production should go a long way toward remedying that neglect.
Michael Kahn, in a rare trip across town from the Shakespeare Theatre, brings his clearheaded way with storytelling to a company much in need of it. His clean staging and attention to characterization have come to be expected, but in this opera more than most, what is spelled out by the text is only part of the story. Subtext is what sells the piece, and with Kahn we are never in doubt about what these people are thinking, whether musical focus is on them or not. In fact, Kahn’s most telling work can be discerned when the singers are silent, distracting themselves from painful conversations with mindless busywork or standing mute and helpless as they watch their lives change before their eyes.
Kahn is fortunate in the casting of Charlotte Hellekant as Erika. The journey from hopeful girl to woman without prospects, the sense of Erika aging, of her sexuality dissipating in a matter of weeks, is palpably conveyed in Hellekant’s performance. It goes beyond her gaunt stare and the clutching at her straitjacketing clothes: There are times when her Erika seems one long, stifled cry from the soul. It would not be surprising to find that Kahn considers Erika the central role of this opera—that’s certainly how she comes off.
Elizabeth Holleque, on the other hand, doesn’t let us into Vanessa’s head. There is a blankness through too much of her performance, as if surface gesture were being asked to take the place of real animating thought. By the time she reveals some complexity it’s too late—we don’t care for her as we do for Erika. In Anatol’s case, William Joyner clutters the role with tenor posturing and fussy affectation. The man is supposed to be a cad, but this sort of one-note smarminess creates a villain too transparent to be credible.
Fortunately, the musical side of the evening is uniformly strong, with Holleque’s powerhouse soprano achieving special distinction when reined-in to an achingly lovely pianissimo. Hellekant’s vibrant mezzo is alive to the dramatic promptings of the text, most memorably in the famous aria “Must the Winter Come So Soon?” The orchestra turns in first-rate work as well, conductor Anne Manson (of Britain’s risk-taking Mecklenburgh Opera) triumphing over the mercilessly analytical acoustic with a disciplined reading of this thorny score. Michael Yeargan’s Chekhovian country house makes a handsome and appropriate setting for the opera, as well as an elegant backdrop for Martin Pakledinaz’s exquisite costumes, designed with a sharp eye for matching palette and emotion.
All told, this is an Eisenhower season greater than the sum of its parts, one that envisions an American opera that doesn’t treat our own language as anathema and opens its mind to works—new and old—beyond the endlessly recycled canon.