Tried and true doesn't mean tiresome Opera: Baltimore, Washington companies fill schedules with familiar fare. But there is much to recommend their seasons.

October 15, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Because they are short and often paired together, Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" ("Rustic Chivalry") and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" ("Clowns") are locked together in an eternal embrace as "Cav & Pag." They were performed together for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera in 1893 and have been performed that way more than 500 times since.

They are as popular as they are short. Everyone who has ever turned on a TV set or gone for a ride in an elevator has heard the "intermezzo" from "Cav." And the famous tenor aria in "Pag" ("Vesti la giubba") is even more familiar. You may know it as an ad for Kellogg's Rice Krispies ("No more Rice Krispies . . .!") or in the Billboard-topping '60s adaptation by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ("The Tears of a Clown").

Popular as the latter was (and is), however, Enrico Caruso's 78 rpm single of this tune, in which the tenor laments the necessity of putting on a clown's garb when his heart is breaking, sold more than a million copies and moved a generation to tears before American women had the vote.

Little wonder that the Baltimore Opera Company chose to inaugurate its 1998-99 season tonight with a production of this sure-fire double bill. A regional opera house with limited resources can't stray too far from the tried and true -- and, for the most part, that characterizes most of the rest of the BOC's

season: Bellini's "Norma" (Nov. 12-22), Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" (March 11-21) and Umberto Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" (April 22-May 2).

But let's give credit where credit is deserved: Aside from "Norma," the season beginning tonight represents the most adventurous programming at the BOC since general director Michael Harrison took over the reins of the company 10 years ago.

"Chenier" isn't exactly unfamiliar fare -- it's Giordano's most famous opera, and it's a favorite vehicle for both Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo -- but it usually takes a star tenor to persuade any opera house, outside the environs of New York, London or Milan, to stage it. "Onegin," of course, is -- along with Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" -- one of the two Russian works ensconced in the repertory of most of the world's major opera houses. But it's much less often performed in regional theaters.

The BOC is wisely taking advantage of a Russian-opera boom that began with glasnost. The resulting breakup of the Soviet Union engendered a free-market economy that forced great Russian institutions such as the Kirov and Bolshoi operas to begin touring outside Russia in search of hard currency and which, in turn, introduced Western audiences to operas heretofore considered only novelties.

The same forces have also made available to Western opera houses a number of superb Soviet-trained singers -- such as the tenor Gegam Grigorian, the soprano Maria Gavrilova and the mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura, all of whom will be appearing this season in BOC productions.

The opera boom, which began with the introduction of supertitles 15 years ago, shows no signs of abatement.

This is surely the case 45 miles south at the Kennedy Center, where the Washington Opera continues to look more and more like a major international house. Its redoubtable operatic roster includes: Giordano's "Fedora" (Oct. 24-Nov. 20); Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" (Oct. 31-Nov. 24); Saint-Saens' "Samson et Dalila" (Nov. 10-28); Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio" (Dec. 26-Jan. 24); Robert Ward's "The Crucible" (Jan. 2-30); Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" (Feb. 13-March 3); Wagner's +V "Tristan und Isolde" (Feb. 27-March 23); and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's "Sly" (March 10-24).

This is big-time stuff. "Fedora," for example, is an important opera that rarely gets performed in the United States.

This production, moreover, is a major undertaking that stars the Washington Opera's artistic director (and superstar tenor) Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, one of the most beloved sopranos of our time, in what is likely to be one of her last operatic appearances in the United States.

The audiences for "Samson" will be filled with opera lovers from all over North America. The reason is the appearance of Jose Cura in the title role.

In obtaining the services of this young Chilean tenor, the Washington Opera has aced the Met and every other important American opera house. Right now, Cura is huge and hot. In Europe, he has been almost universally acknowledged as Domingo's heir (including by Domingo himself), and he has already been featured in a flattering cover story by Gramophone -- the Holy Bible-cum-Koran-cum-Bhagavad-Gita of classical-record consumption from London to New York to Tokyo.

Let us also not forget productions of Ward's "The Crucible," which was hailed as a masterpiece (it is, actually) in 1962 when it won the Pulitzer Prize and which is rarely staged today; of Mussorgsky's "Boris" that stars Samuel Ramey; and of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," which has never been staged south of the Big Apple.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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