Wolf Trap Opera starts a promising new year

Review: The "National Park for the Performing Arts" begins its 30th year with Rossini's "L'italiana in Algeri."

June 26, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

VIENNA, Va. - Kim Pensinger Witman has an easy way to gauge the success of the Wolf Trap Opera Company.

"If you look at the rosters of opera companies in this country and Europe, there's usually at least one of our singers on them," the company's general director says. "It's amazing."

Celebrating its 30th anniversary season, Wolf Trap Opera was founded in 1971 as part of Wolf Trap itself, "America's National Park for the Performing Arts," in Vienna, Va. The opera company is a training ground for emerging vocal artists in the transitional period between education and professional careers.

Wolf Trap's celebrated alumni include mezzo Denyce Graves, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and one of the most promising tenors to come along in years, Gregory Turay. These singers were trained by other companies, too. But Wolf Trap Opera, which has generated more and more buzz in the opera world during the past decade, clearly offers something special.

"The singers don't understudy roles or do any other second-tier work," Whitman says. "They are cast in all the principal roles for three productions each summer."

Two productions are presented in the Barns of Wolf Trap, an intimate, indoor 350-seat space; one in the partially open-air Filene Center, which seats more than 3,600 in-house, another 3,000 or more on the lawn. "I tell the singers they will get to sing in probably the biggest and smallest places they will ever sing in," Whitman says.

To find talent, Whitman visits seven cities nationwide each autumn and auditions approximately 300 singers, selected from about 500 who send in applications and audio tapes. From this field, Whitman narrows the choice to 12, who form the core of the company's summer season. A professional chorus and orchestra from the Washington area complete the forces.

"The singers get something they can't get almost anywhere else - a thorough grounding in the basic, predominantly 18th century, Italianate style," Whitman says.

The works being addressed by this year's vocal crop typify this emphasis. The 2000 season opened Friday with Rossini's "L'italiana in Algeri"; will continue next month with Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea"; and conclude in August with Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

And if its repertoire is usually traditional, this is hardly an old-fashioned company. The current staging of the Rossini, for example, could not be more contemporary.

The team of director Ned Canty, scenic designer Andrew Lieberman, costume designer Kaye Voyce and lighting designerMartha Mountain has concocted a production that positively shrieks pop culture.

The palace of Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers, where the action takes place, has been turned into a psychedelic-flavored disco with lime green and orange benches. The Bey's harem of eunuchs is decked out in sun glasses and prone to the campiest of poses. Mustafa himself looks like a cross between Elvis and the hero of "Saturday Night Fever."

When the shipwrecked Isabella arrives - she's "L'italiana in Algeri" (the Italian girl in Algiers) - she's in full sex-bomb mode, a banner bearing the inscription "Miss L'italiana Pasta" stretched across her tight-fitting red dress. Later, in her attempt to hoodwink Mustafa, she appears in Nancy Sinatra's made-for-walkin' boots and mini-skirt, with flashy silver, Tina Turner-style hair.

Isabella's would-be boyfriend, Taddeo, who gets captured along with her, is Austin Powers in a black wig. Her long-lost real boyfriend, Lindoro, already a slave of the Bey, wears a sleeveless T-shirt and makes pizza while he pines away for Isabella - sweetly forming the pepperoni into the shape of a heart.

And that's just for starters. There are more sight gags than you can shake a shtick at, some of them perhaps a little over the line into vulgar-land. But the whole crazy package adds up to an amusing night at the opera. Happily, all of the energy has not been expended on the stage business. There is an impressive musical performance going on, too.

With as many rubbery moves as Jim Carrey, Kevin Burdette had a field day as Mustafa. If his bass voice could have used more power and roundness of tone, his singing had an irresistible panache. Jossie Perez brought a sizable, vibrant mezzo and vivid phrasing (not to mention an amply displayed, much-exploited bosom) to the role of Isabella. Tenor David Adams fearlessly attacked Lindoro's high-lying music; more tonal nuances would have been welcome, but the expressive heat of his singing paid rewards.

Baritone Keith Phares, as Taddeo, offered rich, stylish and technically solid vocalism. The whole cast demonstrated true ensemble meshing and great timing, the secret of any Rossini comedy and doubly essential in a production as wildly kinetic as this one.

The chorus was smooth-voiced, and the orchestra was spirited, and J. David Jackson conducted with a propulsive sweep.

"L'italiana in Algeri" will be repeated at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Friday. Tickets are $48. Call 703-218-6500.

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