Opera worth trip to Kennedy

Review: Offenbach and Mozart productions score high on vocal quality, ensemble acting and conducting.

September 19, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The return to what now passes for normality began at the Kennedy Center one day after the terror. Night lights from the rescue and recovery efforts under way at the Pentagon a short distance away on the other side of the Potomac could be seen from the center's promenade, its fountains running almost in defiance.

Inside, the Washington Opera resumed its 46th season as scheduled with the second of 10 performances of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, followed the next night by the opening of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Only the cast party for the latter was canceled; otherwise, it was opera as usual.

Well, not quite. That Hoffmann performance last Wednesday began with the singing of "America the Beautiful"; the patriotic wave was still in force two nights ago, when the national anthem was heartily sung before another performance of Cosi. Perhaps it is a measure of emotional progress that there was only silence after that "America the Beautiful," when so little time had passed since the deadly day, and a wave of cheers and applause after the "Star-Spangled Banner" on Monday.

On both occasions, it seemed as if the performers had managed somehow to lift the heaviness of events; the confidence and quality of the music-making no doubt helped the audiences to focus and savor. There are certainly points to quibble about in both productions, but in terms of vocal quality, ensemble acting and conducting, this dual season-opener has much to offer. Remaining performances should be well worth the trip.

Hoffmann, Offenbach's swan song, has a messy history when it comes to performance editions. The composer died before making final decisions about both music and text; several well-intentioned folks tinkered with the material before and after the premiere 120 years ago. Efforts to fashion a more faithful edition of the opera, based on original manuscripts that only came to light in the last three decades or so, have resulted in more choices - and more questions.

Washington Opera cites Michael Kaye's recent edition of the score, but there has been a fair amount of modifications to it. The acts are not ordered as Kaye - and, most scholars argue, Offenbach - intended, for example. Various nips and tucks have been taken within the acts as well.

In the end, though, almost any respectful, sensible version of the opera is valid (as long as it includes the double role of Hoffmann's buddy Nicklausse and the Muse, which this production does). The stark truth is that we will never know exactly what Of- fenbach wanted to do or would have done. Anyone convinced that there really is a definitive version of Hoffmann worth feeling terribly purist about may have trouble with this effort; everyone else is likely to have a good time.

Richard Leech, in the title role, is short on tonal subtlety, but dramatically compelling. Denyce Graves, who sang so movingly during the prayer service at the National Cathedral last week, uses her lush mezzo to telling effect as Nicklausse/Muse.

Ideally, one singer should tackle the roles of Hoffmann's ideal, lost loves, but finding a soprano who can cope with the different vocal requirements of each has never been easy. This production divides the assignment, a practice best justified by offering three top-notch artists in top-drawer form. That's just what we get here.

Sumi Jo stops the show with her dazzling coloratura flights as the mechanical doll, Olympia. Andrea Rost offers a beguiling mix of intensity and tenderness as Antonia. Victoria Livengood wraps her big mezzo around the role of Giulietta and heats up the stage.

Also ideally, one singer should be cast as Hoffmann's nemeses. Inexplicably, even inexcusably, one of those roles, Dapertutto, has been given to a young, not-quite-ready singer. The others are assigned to Alan Held, who provides plenty of menace and color, particularly as Dr. Miracle.(An alternate cast sings some of the remaining performances.)

Emmanuel Villaume conducts with his usual finesse and sensitivity, coaxing a vibrant response from the orchestra.

The physical properties of the production are not much to write home about. Giovanni Agostinucci's sets look dated, even cheesy in the Las Vegas-y Venetian scene, with its very noisy curtain. Director Marta Domingo reveals limited imagination, especially handling crowds. A few curious ideas crop up; having several automatons prancing and dancing jerkily in Act 2, for example, dilutes the main attraction, Olympia.

With Cosi fan tutte, the company hits a more consistent stride; the visual, musical and directorial elements come together quite nicely, for the most part, to serve Mozart and us.

The cast has no trouble interacting easily, what with a case of nature imitating art - brothers Richard Croft and Dwayne Croft portray Ferrando and Guglielmo, and Dwayne's wife Ainhoa Arteta is in the role of Guglielmo's love, Fiordiligi. Joyce DiDonato completes the romantic quadrangle as Dorabella.

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