Eventful weekend of debuts, premieres

Te Kanawa, Mutter in Washington

Music Review

October 21, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Washington was a hot place to be over the weekend - important premieres by the National Symphony, a recital by nonpareil violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Kiri Te Kanawa's Washington Opera debut in Samuel Barber's Gothic opera Vanessa.

With a psychologically astute, if occasionally overripe, libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti and an unabashedly romantic and brilliantly orchestrated, if occasionally overheated, score, Vanessa makes for a compelling night of music and theater.

On Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Te Kanawa offered a compelling, incisive portrait of a grande dame wedded to the past who is unexpectedly awakened to feelings long dormant. This Vanessa was every bit the aristocrat in bearing, every bit the vulnerable woman underneath.

At 58, the soprano's vocal state is in remarkably fine shape. Te Kanawa was sometimes swamped by the orchestra; the middle and low ranges of the voice sometimes lacked focus or tonal weight. But the top soared with considerable freedom and beauty. The high, endlessly floated final note of her Act 1 aria was not just exquisite to hear; it also uncovered Vanessa's heart.

What counted most was how artfully Te Kanawa packaged her musical and theatrical resources. She owned the stage. But she shared ownership with some extraordinary colleagues.

Lucy Schaufer, as Vanessa's heartsick niece Erika, gave a performance that had star quality all over it. The mezzo produced an unending stream of superbly shaped, sensitively shaded notes and breathed potent life into Menotti's lines.

Her acting was full of deft touches, nowhere more strikingly than during the New Year's Eve scene when Erika decides to end an unwanted pregnancy. Schaufer brought the intensity of the character's emotions into uncomfortably sharp relief.

Rosalind Elias created the role of Erika in the 1958 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera; here, she portrayed Vanessa's taciturn mother, the Old Baroness. The veteran mezzo, at 73, still delivers the goods.

Much of the music was truly, fully sung; the character's few words were given strongly pointed meaning. Gestures, too, were telling. The sight of the Baroness, transformed by the events into a white shadow of her former regal self, slowly turning over cards as the house is once again engulfed in gloom, made a long-lasting impression.

As Anatol, the young, vain man who enters the lonely house and changes the lives of everyone in it, John Matz was a little too long on the vain part - primping, prancing and grinning. More nuances would have been welcome. But the tenor revealed a most promising voice, with a bright, warm tone. David Evitts delivered a thoroughly endearing, masterful performance as the Doctor.

Emmanuel Joel conducted with authority and affection, generating fervent results from the orchestra.

Washington Opera's revival of its 1995 production provides an elegant framework for the action; Michael Yeargan's design perfectly captures the would-be grandeur of Vanessa's country house, with its furnishings and, above all, mirrors, draped in white cloth. Joan Sullivan-Genthe's atmospheric lighting design is as much a character in the opera as any of the singers.

Director Stephen Lawless reveals a keen eye for detail as he keeps the action flowing with a natural, powerful momentum. His obvious belief in this opera yields consistent rewards.

There will be seven more performances of "Vanessa" through Nov. 10. For tickets, call 800-876-7372.

Anne-Sophie Mutter

The world certainly doesn't lack for talented violinists these days, but when Anne-Sophie Mutter plays, there just don't seem to be any others. On Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, in a recital with superb pianist Lambert Orkis presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, the German-born Mutter demonstrated a startling array of technical and interpretive powers.

Those powers could not have found a better outlet than this program, called "Song and Dance." To start, there was the lyrical refinement of Faure's A major Sonata, a kind of wordless song for violin and piano. By limiting the use of vibrato, Mutter colored phrases in fresh ways; each movement got its character from the changing sound of the instrument itself.

A group of Hungarian Dances by Brahms was delivered with enticing vibrancy and rhythmic elasticity. Mutter took risks, tonal and technical, that few fiddlers would try today. The result was the most Hungarian-sounding performance of these pieces I've ever heard.

You couldn't ask for more beauty and imagination than Mutter provided in some Kreisler favorites (how deeply wistful she made his Liebesleid), or more sizzle and atmosphere than she brought to the Heifetz arrangements of Porgy and Bess favorites. Again, the way the violinist held vibrato in reserve, saving it for just the right emphasis, proved marvelous.

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