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Performed by the Washington Opera At the Kennedy Center Opera House

The Washington Opera turns 40 this season. That’s cause for no little celebration, given the struggles of its fledgling years and the thrill of seeing its promise more than fulfilled. Of course, there have been trade-offs in the rise to prominence: The company is practically a case study in the art-vs.-commerce debate playing out in opera houses across the country. The opening of this season—the final one programmed by outgoing general director Martin Feinstein—sets questions of where the Washington Opera has been and where it’s going in even greater relief.

Here is a company that, in its first decade of producing, most resembled the small, alternative groups currently bringing new and innovatively staged opera to the D.C. area. By the early ’70s, the company was premiering and recording thorny new operas by Ginastera and giving America its first taste of out-of-the-way Cavalli and Delius. The cost: every kind of financial distress, from single-opera seasons to years with no productions at all.

But those were the Lisner Auditorium days, when the Opera Society (as it was then called) could, for a few hundred thousand dollars a year, offer specialized audiences an alternative to the annual Met tours. The Kennedy Center move in ’71 raised the stakes dramatically, and it’s a tribute to Ian Strasfogel’s directorship that he could continue the daring programming of predecessors like Paul Calloway and Bliss Herbert in those luxurious new digs. But change was inevitable, and George London pulled repertoire back to center, paving the way for Feinstein, who took office the same year as Reagan. Feinstein brought the company a prosperity that’s long outlasted Ronnie’s, turning a modest ensemble into one of America’s largest and most lucrative opera producers, with a budget of 10-plus million dollars and climbing. With no more Met tours to compete against, the Washington Opera became the Met.

Big-name stars, lavish sets, more operas per square inch, an exponentially expanded audience—what’s wrong with this picture? For mainstream operagoers, nothing. But in the marketplace wars, fresh perspectives and artistic risk-taking have been missing-in-action. Three-opera seasons of challenging works have given way to seven-opera reps of ear-candy. As house composers Menotti and Argento have turned increasingly reactionary, so has the Washington Opera’s notion of what constitutes “new” work. Perhaps it was the loss of the Terrace Theater as a place for experimentation. More likely, the new conservatism just sells better. With houses near 100 percent capacity, it must seem perverse to question our enslavement to 19th-century notions of “acceptable art.”

Again, where there have been losses there have also been impressive gains—and not just in the ledger books. What Feinstein has forged in the District is a company with an ever-evolving base of fine American singers, a much-improved orchestra, and in its best moments, a marriage of accessible tonality and naturalistic acting that could almost be called a company style.

The Washington Opera has never looked better than in its current production of Der Rosenkavalier. D.C. audiences have waited all of these 40 years for a home-grown staging of this repertory favorite, and it has truly been worth the wait. This production fires on all cylinders. Superb singing is matched by elegant stagecraft and a dramatic cohesion that suggests everyone has thought about who these characters are and why they do what they do. Although it is the second opera to premier this season, Rosenkavalier is the production that shows how far the Washington Opera has come. A company that can put on a show like this can hold its own against any house in the world.

Rosenkavalier probably could not have happened at any other time. It demands a huge budget and long years of experience. Beyond the lavish sets and costumes, the dozens of small roles, and a trio of women up to the music’s stratospheric demands, the score calls for a mammoth orchestra, kept furiously busy in what amounts to a three-hour tone poem with voices. Music director Heinz Fricke, who’s been working to restore important German repertoire to the company’s roster, finds success in this work by keeping a purposeful through-line and not letting orchestral mass muddy intricate textures. The music is hard enough to get through, let alone interpret memorably, but Fricke and his disciplined—and greatly augmented—band let a myriad of telling details register. Not the last word in aching nostalgia, perhaps, but a poised, sympathetic performance.

Nostalgia is certainly at the core of Rosenkavalier. Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were the 20th-century answer to Mozart and Da Ponte, and this 1911 work is an unabashed piece of 18th-century pastiche. It’s as if Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro had been retooled into a Viennese operetta, injected with a dose of Freud, and given the full 70mm Technicolor Surround Sound treatment. Lush, sentimental, and expansive (a colleague once compared sitting through its three-hour-plus length to eating an entire cartful of Austrian pastry), this is one of the most ravishing pieces ever composed for the musical stage.

The story revolves around the presentation of a silver rose to the teen-age Sophie as the official prelude to her imminent marriage. The presenter is Octavian, a young cavalier who, upon meeting her, immediately falls in love and challenges the rights of her intended husband, a paunchy old satyr named Baron Ochs. This whole mess is inadvertently set into motion by Octavian’s much older lover, the unhappily married and aristocratically bored Marschallin (as in Mrs. Field-Marshal), and ends (following an elaborate cross-dressing prank to finish off the baron’s reputation) with the Mar schallin nobly surrenderingOctavian to Sophie.

If that all sounds like the tired old stuff of commedia dell’arte farce, it is. But so was the material Mozart and Da Ponte turned to gold. Hofmannsthal was canny enough to take silly, potentially lewd situation comedy to that rarefied plane where sparkling wit and the bitterest heartbreak gracefully commingle. The costumes and manners may be old-world, but the characters’ dilemmas feel eternally contemporary. Strauss adds layer after layer of subtext and objective commentary in the pit, and takes the first flutterings of young love into such ecstatic regions of the voice, you keep thinking you’ve heard the most beautiful vocal line ever written—until the next phrase tops the last and leaves you breathless. Strauss’ music transforms narcissism into wistful longing, boorishness into human foible, naiveté into truest wisdom. That was his genius.

There are two interpretive dangers facing performers in this opera. The first is overinflecting the text to the point where artfulness intrudes on genuine expression. The second is playing one salient feature of a character to the exclusion of all others (Octavian’s swagger, the Marschallin’s grand suffering, etc.). That the Washington Opera cast keeps things simple and truthful is a tribute to them and director Michael Heinicke. Janet Williams’ enchanting Sophie is the most detailed and natural acting performance and comes with a voice of welcome power and sensuousness (both rare commodities in the canaries who often land this part). It’s a role that Helen Donath sang for many years before making a move to the Marschallin, as so many legendary sopranos had done before her. Donath’s voice has filled out nicely over the years—luminous as always on top and with added warmth and weight below—and she makes moving sense of her words. This Marschallin creates a striking distinction between her charming public persona and her unusually forthright emotions in private moments.

Octavian is a real challenge to put over. One of the greatest mezzo-soprano “pants roles,” its interpreters have often come off as uncomfortably dressed hausfraus or female drag artists. Possessing a voice of soaring beauty, Jeanne Piland doesn’t “play at” boyishness. She simply plays the role and what results is a subtly convincing portrait of this 17-year-old boy. A fresh take on Ochs has the old lecher drop a few years and a few pounds to become nouveau-riche midlife crisis run amok. Eric Halfvarson plays him with infectious zest and rolls out his cavernous voice to wry effect.

Exquisite costumes by David Walker are set against Thierry Bosquet’s sets, which are based on Alfred Roller’s designs for the first production. What a dream to see those famous renderings take life on a modern stage! It would have been nice to have them more solidly built (too many walls flapping in the breeze) or to see Bosquet try a three-dimensional realization of those sculptural pieces in Act 2, but the illusion of richness remains. The lighting is lovely for the most part, but seriously lacks atmosphere in the final act.

Like the opera itself, the production is proudly old-fashioned—many “traditional” bits of stage business are recognizable from famous past productions—but when a work like Rosenkavalier is done with the kind of clarity and affection found here, the Washington Opera is unassailable.

So why the decision to kick off the Washington Opera’s birth day-bash-cum-farewell-party with Luisa Miller? The company’s track record with Verdi is wildly uneven—terrific singing often undermined by ludicrous, old-school theatrics (recent stabs at Trovatore, Ballo, and Otello, to name a few). And here we are all over again, only this time with a production imported from the Met. This big, dopey show does neither institution any favors. That Hall of Dinosaurs at Lincoln Center can get its act together for Verdi when it wants to, but the Luisa sets are the most folksily pedestrian in the Met’s warehouse, and the staging is practically nonexistent. That’s two strikes against a piece already in need of some minor miracles to make it playable at all.

What’s to be done, for instance, with Cammerano’s libretto? Here’s one opera that Surtitles do nothing for. The more you understand, the more you laugh, as the audience did repeatedly on opening night. One of those stories involving a nobleman caught between an arranged marriage and his love for a peasant girl, it sports the kind of hero who offers to kill his beloved Luisa rather than be separated from her. We also get a mustache-twirling villain named Wurm, who comes out with stuff like “Satan protect me!” The rest of the characters are busy stopping the action every other line to call on God to have mercy on the downtrodden. Honestly, the thing plays like a Harlequin romance targeted at the evangelical crowd. It’s all about as relevant as rapier duels at sunrise, its one useful lesson appearing to be: Save the poison until after the big talk with your girlfriend. I’m sure there were audience members ready for the fatal dram themselves by the first intermission.

The reason for doing Luisa Miller at all, of course, is Verdi. Even at this early stage of his career, he could take one-dimensional characters and flesh them out to two, though given the Cammerano factor, three was out of the question. So many plot points and character conflicts anticipate later, richer Verdi, particularly Traviata and Don Carlo. The loving relationship between Miller and his daughter Luisa, and the more turbulent one involving Count Walter and his son Rodolfo, are practically blueprints for the paternal bonds at the heart of so many mature Verdi works. This 1849 opera has one foot in bel canto and the other in Verdi’s groundbreaking middle-period style. It’s filled with generous melody and often-surprising orchestral color, even in moments of sparest accompaniment, but the score’s focus is squarely on the voice (no more so than in Act 2’s lovely a cappella quartet).

The Washington Opera’s trump card here is its thoroughly idiomatic cast, which almost makes the nonsense on stage worth putting up with. Verónica Villarroel’s vibrant, forwardly placed spinto soprano is tailor-made for Traviata, and since Luisa seems a less complex cousin of Violetta, Villarroel neatly fits the role’s contours. She hits the coloratura accurately and marshalls the warm, full-bodied tone needed in larger ensembles. Haijing Fu’s voice is the genuine article as the elder Miller: a mahogany baritone delivered with seamless legato, Italianate phrasing, and a sad nobility to his tone. Lando Bartolini’s bellowing and slam-bang way with a vocal line may not make him the most musically satisfying of Verdi singers, but then when did music ever get in the way of thrilling tenorizing? Those who relish the powerhouse approach will enjoy this Mario Del Monaco throwback. Kudos as well to dueling basses Gabor Andrasy and Kevin Langan, as Walter and Wurm, respectively, who make something truly sonorous of their conspiratorial scene. Richard Buckley conducts with scrupulous attention to detail, tapping those deep pools of emotion Verdi tucked into corners of the score, and creating dramatic resonance where there isn’t much.

Luisa Miller is a tough nut to crack (and there’s not a lot of meat inside once you get through the shell). But, if the acting weren’t as dreadful or the production as relentlessly dreary as it regrettably is, the company might have had the gala opening it so clearly desired. Verdi is too important to be treated this way, and if slim pickings among available Verdi voices mean good singing must be bought at the cost of believable drama, then maybe it is time for Guiseppe to take a sabbatical. Surely this of all seasons should show the world not what the Met does poorly, but what the Washington Opera does brilliantly.