For centuries, people argued about what comes first in opera - the music or the words. In more recent times, the argument seems more about whether the staging or the singing comes first. The staging often wins, sad to say; lavish sets and costumes or, more likely, determinedly unorthodox directorial concepts have given the music some very stiff competition.
For 15 years, Washington Concert Opera has carved out a respected niche by avoiding even the hint of a prop and putting the total emphasis on the score (and the text, of course). In the process, the company has built up an exceptional repertoire of operas presented in concert form, and an even more remarkable roster of artists.
Bellini's Il pirata, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia and Linda di Chamounix, Rossini's William Tell, Weber's Der Freischutz and Massenet's Thais are among the rare items that have been dusted off and offered along with more familiar fare.
Casts have featured the likes of Renee Fleming, Deborah Voigt, Denyce Graves, Sumi Jo, Florence Quivar, Vinson Cole, Ben Heppner, James Morris and Patricia Racette - in short, a who's who of who's worth hearing in opera today.
To celebrate its 15th anniversary, Washington Concert Opera put on quite a concert Sunday evening at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.
Four singers who have appeared with the company returned for the event - Voigt, one of the most exciting sopranos to emerge in years; Elizabeth Bishop, a mezzo of considerable gifts; tenor Gregory Turay and baritone Franco Pomponi, whose young careers appear to be heading skyward.
Not everything was worth celebrating - the often ragged orchestra; the routine conducting of Stephen Crout, who founded the company (and has been succeeded by Antony Walker as artistic director); the dry-as-dust acoustics; the one-from-column-A, two-from-column-B approach to the program.
And it's possible to quibble over a detail or two in the singing, especially by the men. But the reservations were easily eclipsed by the delights.
Voigt was in fabulous form. She wrapped her lush voice around Dich teure Halle from Wagner's Tannhauser and had the top notes ringing out mightily. She tapped a great deal of the pathos in Sola, perduta, abbandonata from Puccini's Manon Lescaut and likewise tellingly communicated nuances in arias by Weber and Verdi.
On technical grounds alone, the soprano's vocalism scored high; the ease and evenness of projection never fails to impress. Add in the personality and concern for words and phrases, and you're talking about an artist who could well usher us into a new golden age of singing.
Bishop's performances were notable for the beauty and power of her middle and low registers, as well as the expressive heat she could generate. Though she sounded a little taxed at the upper end of an aria from Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans and a little pale in one from Massenet's Werther, she jumped into What a Movie! from Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti with terrific vocal and theatrical flair.
Turay, who created the role of Rodolpho in William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge in 1999, delivered that character's show-stopping aria The New York Lights with exquisite sensitivity. I wish he could have produced the same eloquence earlier in Donizetti and Gounod favorites, undercut by a grainy tone and limited dynamic variety.
One basic, loud volume and a tendency to over-emote (complete with Ricky Ricardo-like bugged-out eyes) worked against Pomponi's efforts. But the tonal warmth and smoothness of his voice certainly proved appealing.
Pomponi and Turay collaborated vibrantly on the great duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. The four soloists chimed in for a winning turn through Without a Song as an encore for this salute to a company that is likely to continue spicing up the local scene.
On the horizon
Lots of musical events are vying for your attention these days. Here are just a few that look particularly promising:
Edward Polochick leads the Peabody Concert Orchestra in Brahms' Symphony No. 1, a liturgical work by Rachmaninoff (with Peabody choral groups) and Borodin's evergreen Polovtsian Dances at 8 p.m. tomorrow.
James Morris, one of the world's greatest Wagnerian basses, joins the Peabody Symphony Orchestra for Wotan's Farewell from Die Walkure. On its own, the orchestra, conducted by Hajime Teri Murai, will perform more Wagner (Ride of the Valkyries), Janacek's Sinfonietta and the world premiere of Jeffrey Lindon's Macht Competition-winning I. This concert is at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Both events are at Peabody's Friedberg Hall, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place. For tickets, call 410-659-8100, Ext. 2
Awadagin Pratt, whose playing can be as provocative as it is brilliant, will be the soloist in the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra's concert to benefit the AMC Cancer Research Center. He'll play Brahms' brooding Concerto No. 1 this weekend.
The program, conducted by Jed Gaylin, also offers Schubert's sublime Unfinished Symphony and Webern's transcription of Bach's Ricercare.
The concert is at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St. For tickets, call 410-516-6542.