Opera's memorable `I Puritani'

MUSIC

Music column

September 25, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The most rabid opera fans don't really need the luxury of sets and costumes, let alone any trendy directorial concepts, to enjoy the art form. They can be perfectly content with an audio-only format.

For more than 20 years, that format has been the specialty of Washington Concert Opera, which served up quite an earful Sunday night - a hot performance of Bellini's melody feast, I Puritani, that packed George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.

This is a work particularly well-suited to concert-style delivery, since the plot, a romantic entanglement involving Puritans and Cavaliers, is not exactly brimming over with theatrical incident. The music is everything here. Bellini - the anniversary of his death in Paris in 1835 coincided to the day with this presentation - reached a height of exquisite lyricism with Puritani, his final opera.

The score's elegantly crafted arias and ensembles abound in opportunities for vocal display, as well as interpretive refinement, opportunities seized by the ardent cast assembled here.

It was great to encounter Lawrence Brownlee again. The tenor, making his third appearance with the company since 2004, won two big-time honors, the Richard Tucker Award and Marian Anderson Award, last year, and he is quickly establishing himself on the world scene as a formidable advocate for the 19th-century Italian repertoire known as bel canto.

The immediately communicative quality about Brownlee's voice, the vibrant edge in the tone, animated the role of dashing, brave Arturo. I wish the tenor had offered more soft singing along the way; he spent a lot of time at forte level, pushing hard to sustain it. And his laudable attempt to deliver the killer high F in Credeasi, misera didn't quite succeed (a falsetto may have been wiser than his full-throttle approach).

That said, this was still an exciting, keenly expressive achievement that understandably brought down the house. I hope someone will introduce Brownlee to Baltimore audiences before too long. He's a major addition to the vocal scene.

He had a sensational co-star Sunday night in Sarah Coburn, as the intermittently unbalanced Elvira. In vocal terms, the soprano proved to be a remarkably pure Puritan, her tone clear, smooth and effortless. Coburn, who would also be a very welcome presence on one of our local stages, apparently never met a coloratura hurdle she couldn't surmount. Her technique was so comfortably controlled that, even at its highest and loudest, her voice never lost its essential beauty.

Coburn's interpretive instincts were no less impressive. The affecting way she molded phrases, especially in the Act 2 mad scene, brought various layers of the character to the fore. (One minor timing glitch early on in the performance was easily covered over.)

Stephen Powell, as Arturo's rival Riccardo, revealed a sizable baritone that, except for a compressed upper extension, fleshed out Bellini's melodic lines warmly and compellingly. David Pittsinger, as Elvira's sympathetic uncle Giorgio, was a little short on tonal richness but amply gifted with incisive musicality, nowhere more tellingly than in Cinta di fiori.

Magdalena Wor made much of a small role, the Stuart queen Enrichetta, with a burnished mezzo, technical ease and drama-inflected phrasing. Although the chorus and orchestra could have used some strengthening and tightening, both demonstrated the same kind of involvement with Bellini's endearing score as the soloists.

Company artistic director Antony Walker conducted with a propulsive sweep that provided an underlying theatrical spark for the evening. More spacious tempos here and there would not have hurt, but the opera's many riches nonetheless emerged to memorable effect.

Opera simulcast

An estimated 45,000 people caught the Sunday afternoon simulcast of Washington National Opera's provocatively updated production of Puccini's La Boheme transmitted live from the Kennedy Center.

The company counted about 14,000 gathered on The National Mall, where a large screen was set up. The performance was also beamed into two D.C. movie theaters, 31 secondary schools and colleges across the country, and public housing complexes in several U.S. cities.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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