'Il Guarany' is a dramatic directing debut for Domingo

November 12, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Placido Domingo could not have chosen to make his debut as the Washington Opera's artistic director in more dramatic fashion than he did Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. The great Spanish tenor chose to re-introduce the Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes' opera, "Il Guarany" ("The Guarani Indian"), which had not been performed in this country in 112 years. And Domingo not only cast himself in the demanding leading role, he also used the production as an opportunity to bring several new names to the Washington Opera, including the celebrated German film director Werner Herzog, who staged "Il Guarany."

Domingo's arrival has been so eagerly anticipated that it may have created expectations unfair to the resurrection of "Guarany," which had scored a sensational success at Milan's La Scala in 1870 and had been part of the standard Italian operatic repertory -- though Gomes was Brazilian, he was very much an "Italian" composer -- for nearly 30 years. It immediately needs to be said, therefore, that this past weekend's performance reintroduced a beautiful old work in a lovely new production.

It is easy to take a condescending attitude to "Guarany's" plot -- to accuse Gomes' retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, with the hero as an Amerindian and the heroine as the daughter of a Portuguese lord, of committing the sins of racism and imperialism. But one could say much the same -- lecturing the 19th century for failing to live up to the values of the late 20th is one of life's cheaper pleasures -- about any 19th-century European opera with an "exotic" setting.

There are more important things to note about "Il Guarany": that its tunes are memorable; that its use of the soprano voice, whether by itself or in duet with those of the tenor, baritone or basso, is absolutely terrific; that its orchestration is intriguing; that its use of the concertato -- in which a melody is shared by several voices (whether individual soloists or deployed in groups) -- shows a command of vocal texture almost Verdian in its mastery; and that its composer knew how to use music to tell a compelling story. "Il Guarany" may not be a masterpiece, but it is, as Verdi himself noted, "filled with exquisite musical effects and true musical genius."

The staging demonstrated why Herzog has become one of Europe's most sought-after directors. Like other musically knowledgeable film directors who work in the opera house, such as Ingmar Bergman and John Schlesinger, Herzog focuses his energies on the musical context rather than upon demonstrating his own visual ingenuity. The only (and minor) alteration he made in the text was all to the good. This consisted of updating the work from the days of the conquistadors in the 16th century to those of the "rubber barons," who exploited Brazil in the late 19th century. And when Herzog did invent stage activities -- such as the marionette show that charmingly accompanies the heroine's dreamy bedroom aria in Act II -- they invariably supported the music.

Musically, the performance was even better than the one, featuring some of the same forces, that was recorded live at the Bonn Opera two years ago and released last spring by Sony Classical (S2K 66273). Conductor John Neschling made the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra sound better than Bonn's Orchestra of the Beethovenhalle; Washington chorus master Alan Nathan got his choristers to do work superior to those in Bonn; and the cast was, on the whole, stronger than its 1994 German counterpart.

This was even true of Veronica Villarroel, who sang the part of Cecilia in Bonn. In the performance recorded two years ago, this Chilean soprano seemed to struggle somewhat. On this occasion, however, she met the high-lying challenges of Cecilia's coloratura passages with unimpeded mastery, and her striking stage presence and acting skills were used to impressive effect.

The warmly expressive performance of Basso Hao Jiang Tian (as Cecilia's father, Don Antonio) strengthened the fine impression he has made in recent seasons in Washington productions of Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" and Puccini's "Turandot."

These fine performances were matched by those of three young singers making Washington Opera debuts. Baritone Carlos Alvarez nearly stole the show in the role of the chief villain, Gonzales. This young singer -- he has moved in six years from singing Zarazuela parts in Madrid to major roles at the Metropolitan in New York, Covent Garden in London and the Staatsoper in Vienna -- appears to have an unlimited future. He is good-looking, a superb actor and possesses one of those honeyed, high baritone voices that gives those lucky enough to possess it something of the sex appeal usually restricted to the best tenors.

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