A second break could help singers catch their breath

November 02, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" is usually performed with two intermissions -- after the prologue and the second act. Besides dramatic sense (25 years passes between the prologue and Act I), there are other reasons for that first intermission -- reasons that became clear Saturday when the Washington Opera presented its new production at the Kennedy Center.

The single intermission (after Act II), which divided "Simon" into a 90-minute first half and an hour-long second half, was almost certainly motivated by economic necessity: a running time of three hours instead of four meant paying the orchestra less.

But the decision did not benefit the singers. Bass-baritone Simon Estes will be 61 in a few months. That he was singing a part designed for a true baritone put his voice under considerable stress. The requirement of having to sing almost continuously for 90 minutes meant he began to sing with an ever-increasing wobble and an ever-decreasing sense of presence.

The absence of an early intermission also spelled trouble for soprano Kallen Esperian, who sang the long-lost daughter, Amelia. This spinto role demands the singer begin singing all-out immediately upon her entrance. Asking any soprano to sing "Come in quest'ora bruna" without warming up is a recipe for disaster. Esperian, who has the temperament and vocal amplitude necessary for Amelia, betrayed herself throughout Act with a number of unintended squawks and screams.

This was unfortunate because "Boccanegra," written in 1857 and heavily revised in 1881, is one of Verdi's greatest works as well as one of his personal favorites. There is little in the Verdi canon that surpasses the nobility of Boccanegra's exhortation ("Plebe!

Patrizi! Popolo") that Italians must cease to kill one another or the emotional gorgeousness that mark the reunion between father and daughter and the final reconciliation of enemies.

That another intermission would have helped this performance was evident in the second half. Estes began to sing with renewed strength, sensitivity and elegance in long phrases and without rant. And, with her voice now adequately warmed-up, DTC Esperian began to match the warmth and vulnerability of her portrayal with unfailing beauty of tone.

In other roles, Eric Owens' bass-baritone was insufficiently large and fierce for Jacopo Fiesco; baritone Bruno Pola was an intense Paolo; and Marcello Giordani demonstrated that his sweet and true tenor was more than adequate to satisfy the heavyweight challenge of Gabriele Adorno. Conductor Heinz Fricke paced and shaped the opera well. The direction (Ian Judge), scenery and costumes (John Gunter and Deirdre Clancy) and lighting (Nigel Levings) were exemplary.

Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11, 13, 16, 19 and 24

and 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 22 at the Kennedy Center. Call 800-444-1324.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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