This gala had it all: glam, opera stars and Supremes


Critic's Corner//Music


Fifty years ago, the words "culture" and "Washington" might not have been uttered often in the same breath. They are today.

One reason for the city's reputation as a place where the arts, not just politics, are effectively practiced is the Washington National Opera, which celebrated its golden anniversary with a gala concert Sunday night before a full, glittery house at the Kennedy Center.

It was just the sort of event you'd expect from a company based in the nation's capital and run by a superstar tenor - Placido Domingo is general director.

The guest artist roster boasted two buzz-generating singers, soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Juan Diego Florez, and three Supremes - Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, whose appearance in a spoof suggested new kinds of "activist judges."

The gala attracted politicians, Cabinet officials, ambassadors, high-society denizens (who clearly went in for some very competitive dressing) and just plain music fans, all sharing "a love of opera and a desire to see it flourish," as Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, the event's chairman, said in her opening remarks. She also announced that the evening netted the company more than $4 million.

As talent parades go, this one held considerable interest and yielded impressive music-making, starting at the top with a nimble account of the Overture to Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio (the work that launched the company).

That performance underlined how strongly WNO music director Heinz Fricke, with his calm authority, has built up the company's orchestra. He alternated podium duties in the gala with the excellent Emmanuel Villaume.

Domingo, too, got in some conducting, most effectively in a gorgeous ensemble scene from La rondine that featured members of the company's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program.

The ultra-glam Netrebko delivered a wonderfully spacious, velvet-toned O mio babbino caro. She also joined Domingo for a fiery duet from El Gato Montes.

On his own, Domingo sang another zarzuela extract (No puede ser), making clear that the 65-year-old tenor's recent, multiple-cancellation-causing inflammation of the windpipe is well behind him. In terms of sheer vocal weight and ear-tingling tone, he pretty much outgunned every one else in the concert.

In an aria from Lucrezia Borgia, Florez used his small, finely shaded voice deftly; his model phrase-sculpting easily explained why he's one of the hottest draws on the opera scene today. Anja Kampe delivered such an arresting account of Pace, pace mio Dio that I hope the company will find this Wagnerian a Verdi role soon.

Samuel Ramey's voice has lost some of its wattage, but his stage presence and communicative power registered as vividly as ever in excerpts from Mefistofele and Susannah. Alan Held took a dynamic romp through the "catalog" aria from Don Giovanni, wielding a hefty copy of the Yellow Pages to suggest the extent of the Don's conquests.

Last-minute cancellations - mezzo Denyce Graves and tenor Salvatore Licitra - set off groans in the opera house. Compensation included an unusually sensitive Una furtiva lagrima from Paul Groves, who made exquisite use of messa di voce (a technically difficult crescendo and decrescendo on a single, sustained note).

Another tenor, John Matz, contributed a charming Che gelida manina, and Elizabeth Futral did a stylish turn through the waltz aria from Romeo et Juliette.

The only artist recalled by the audience for a second bow didn't sing a note. He was Vadim Repin, the sensational violinist who, with Domingo conducting, turned in a truly bravura performance of Franz Waxman's `Carmen' Fantasie.

The opera-loving Supreme Court justices did their robed walk-on toward the end of The Audition, a diverting trifle concocted for the gala with music by Marvin Hamlisch, libretto by Sheldon Harnick. Tony Award-winning soprano and West Wing-er Kristin Chenoweth was the lively, bright-voiced focus of this tale of two young singers auditioning for Domingo.

All things considered, the fun, full evening celebrated Washington National's milestone in style.

Local vocals

Peabody Opera Theatre staged A Little Night Music, Sondheim's sophisticated musical, last week. Friday night's performance was uneven in acting and pacing, not to mention crudely amplified. I only stayed for the first act.

There was some attractive singing, especially by Daniel Seigel (Fredrik) and Jessica Medina (Countess). Joining the student cast was veteran soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson in the delicious role of Madame Armfeldt. She seemed unexpectedly stiff, but sang Liaisons with a touch of real class.

The big star was the orchestra, led sensitively by Erin Freeman.

The week before, soprano Lori Hultgren offered an imaginative mix of repertoire (when was the last time you heard songs by Cecile Chaminade and Ture Rangstrom?) in a recital for Music in the Great Hall at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, backed by ever-expressive pianist Jonathan Moyer. Hultgren's big voice needed smoother transitions between registers, but her interpretive ardor proved contagious.

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