19 September 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Washington Concert Opera celebrates Thirty Years with Gala Concert (A. Meade, V. Genaux, M. Angelini, J. Arrey, J. Hacker; Lisner Auditorium, 18 September 2016)

IN REVIEW: Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert celebrants - from left to right, soprano ANGELA MEADE, mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX, tenor MICHELE ANGELINI, Artistic Director and conductor ANTONY WALKER, baritone JAVIER ARREY, and tenor JONAS HACKER [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787), FRANÇOIS-ADRIEN BOIËLDIEU (1775 – 1834), GIACOMO MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869), and GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875): Gala Concert celebrating Washington Concert Opera’s Thirtieth AnniversaryAngela Meade (soprano), Vivica Genaux (mezzo-soprano), Michele Angelini (tenor), Javier Arrey (baritone), Jonas Hacker (tenor); Washington Concert Opera Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA; Sunday, 18 September 2016]

In the troubled years since ill-advisedly speculative economics and the aftereffects of the 11 September terrorist attacks plunged the world into a recession that has yet to wholly relinquish its grip on global financial markets, a number of milestones have been observed in the Performing Arts community, many of them grim reminders of the dire consequences of the necessary relationship between money and art. Venerated opera companies have ceased to perform, and Arts institutions of all descriptions have been forced into insolvency, victims of decimated public funding and private donors adversely affected by economic conditions. Amidst this upheaval and the disappointment and disillusionment that it spawned among Arts supporters, Washington Concert Opera performances have continued to serve as a beacon to opera companies large and small, signaling that opera in the Twenty-First Century may and perhaps even must be a business but that the genre is still foremost defined by music. In recent seasons, making music at the highest possible level has often seemed a secondary concern at best for some institutions, and there is no more admirable and heartening legacy in opera today than WCO’s well-deserved reputation for reliability. The thirtieth anniversary of WCO’s formation is a milestone worth celebrating in grandiose fashion, and this the company did with a gala concert in Lisner Auditorium on the evening of Sunday, 18 September. Enlisting a well-matched ensemble of established and emerging operatic luminaries—soprano Angela Meade, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, tenors Michele Angelini and Jonas Hacker, and baritone Javier Arrey—alongside WCO’s resident orchestra, the company’s thirty years of bringing excellent-quality opera to Washington-area audiences were fêted with conviction that also whetted the appetite for future performances, not least the current season​’s presentations of Jules Massenet’s Hérodiade with Michaela Martens, Joyce El-Khoury, and Michael Fabiano [20 November 2016] and Beethoven’s Leonore with Marjorie Owens, Simon O’Neill, Celena Shafer, and Alan Held [5 March 2017].

​Founded by conductor Stephen Crout and Arts administrator and advocate Peter Russell in 1986, Washington Concert Opera sprang to life in that year with a performance of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles that featured soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, tenor Jerry Hadley, and baritone Gaétan Laperrière. From that auspicious start until the end of his tenure with WCO in 2002, Crout presided over performances that furthered the company​’s mission of providing audiences in the nation’s capital opportunities to hear works seldom if ever performed in North America. A specialization in bel canto repertory that developed early in WCO’s history has been lovingly and thrillingly nurtured by current Artistic Director Antony Walker, leading to Washington Concert Opera often surging to the forefront of opera in the United States by presenting promising young American singers early in their careers, international singers in their American débuts, and celebrated singers in rôle débuts or in parts they may not sing elsewhere.

Marking his fifteenth season at the helm of Washington Concert Opera, Walker deserves the lion’s share of praise for the improvements in the performance standards of the WCO Chorus and Orchestra, the results of which were much in evidence in the orchestral playing on Sunday evening, passing moments of ragged ensemble and a few mistakes by the horns notwithstanding. Gala concerts are apt to be boisterous affairs, and there was no shortage of enthusiasm among the WCO performers. Nevertheless, Walker maintained control, guiding the concert with the good-natured charm of a ringmaster to the manner born. This is not to imply that a circus atmosphere prevailed, except in the sense that the singers engaged in high-flying vocal trapeze acts, high notes whizzing through Lisner Auditorium: with Walker on the podium, no safety nets were required, every individual on the stage, whatever her or his function, clearly relishing the environment of unwavering support that Walker’s leadership begets.

Few if any preludes in opera are more deservedly popular than the Overture from Gioachino Rossini’s La gazza ladra. With its crisp rhythms, quicksilver thematic shifts, and Rossini’s signature crescendi, the Overture was an ideal showcase for Walker’s dynamic style of conducting. Ever an animated presence, Walker spurred the WCO Orchestra to a performance of furious brilliance, the pompous march that follows the opening snare drum rolls sprung with compelling tautness. Phrases for woodwinds were caressed by the musicians, and Walker and the orchestra highlighted the contrast with the minor-key restatement of the primary subject. The Overture​’s zany conclusion took flight—literally so in Walker’s case!—and prepared the audience for the ensuing buffet of bel canto delicacies.

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX singing Maffio Orsini's Brindisi from Gaetano Donizetti's LUCREZIA BORGIA in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]La bella donna è un giovane: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux singing Maffio Orsini’s Brindisi from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​A favorite of Washington audiences thanks in no small part to acclaimed WCO portrayals of Rossini’s Falliero in Bianca e Falliero, Angelina in La Cenerentola, and Arsace in Semiramide, the Alaska native Genaux launched the concert’s vocal selections by scoring a home run for the WCO team, knocking ‘Il segreto per esser felici,’ Maffio Orsini’s Brindisi from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, out of the park. Even in the concert setting, Genaux was the temperamental young reveler to the life, recreating on the Lisner Auditorium stage the dagger’s-point characterization with which she enlivened Minnesota Opera’s 2004 production of Lucrezia Borgia. Her Italian diction scintillated, and her performance of the Brindisi, distinguished by fiorature of pinpoint accuracy, was a rousing summons to WCO’s party.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHELE ANGELINI singing 'Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête' from Gaetano Donizetti's LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Top C x 9: Tenor Michele Angelini singing Tonio’s ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ from Gaetano Donizetti’s La fille du régiment in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Looking like a young Kennedy with Italian rather than Irish genes, Angelini unmistakably proved himself to be a true contender in the bout for dominance among today’s foremost tenori di grazia with an account of Tonio’s ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ from Act One of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment that radiated stylistic suavity. So spirited was his declaration of his love for Marie that one almost expected her—or any number of smitten ladies in the audience, for that matter—to rush into his arms. The ebullient cabaletta ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin’ should be party fare only for the adventurous tenor who is sure of his abilities and preparation, memories of a dismal failure being dreadfully difficult to expunge from listeners’ musical consciences. In this performance, Angelini’s singing lacked neither adventure nor preparation. Each of the eight written top Cs was struck like a perfectly-tuned cymbal, and the long-sustained interpolated ninth was projected with boyish glee. Only Lederhosen was missing from the tenor’s portrayal of the shy but ardent Tyrolean lad.

​If Genaux’s singing of the Lucrezia Borgia Brindisi was a home run, her traversal of the barnstorming bravura showpiece that ends Act One of Hector Berlioz’s edition of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme,’ was a grand slam. Appended to the score for Gluck’s tenor Orphée in the Paris version of the opera, then adapted to an Italian text for inclusion in the Vienna version for altos male or female, and finally reinstated with a different French text in Berlioz’s edition of the score for Pauline Viardot, the aria’s musical construction was long—and wrongly, musicologists now assert—attributed to Ferdinando Bertoni. Genaux is likely the only singer in the world today who is an acclaimed interpreter not only of both Gluck’s and Bertoni’s Orfeos but also of music written for and by Viardot. Loading the bases with volleys of the astonishing coloratura singing that is her trademark, surprisingly soft-grained accents amidst the fireworks, and evenness across the registers that bettered her own highest standards, she concluded her performance of ‘Amour, viens à mon âme’ with a superb cadenza that accomplished the near-impossible feat of combining tastefulness and virtuosity.

​François-Adrien Boiëldieu’s La dame blanche is now almost never performed, especially outside of France, and hearing Angelini sing Georges Brown’s cavatina ‘Viens, gentille dame’ provided resounding evidence both of why the score deserves to be resurrected more frequently and why it is not. The beauties of Boiëldieu’s music are many, but difficulties abound, too, not least in Georges’s stratospheric vocal lines. Ideally, Georges demands the legato of Tito Schipa, the bravura technique of Ugo Benelli, and the upper extension of Ivan Kozlovsky, and the French diction of Georges Thill—in short, Michel Sénéchal. It was Sénéchal that Angelini’s singing often recalled, the passagework handled cleanly and excursions above the stave comfortably integrated into melodic phrases. A pair of notes at the very top of the range were compromised by the effort required to produce them, but this was evidence of the singer’s commitment to holding nothing back. French bel canto and Italian bel canto are related but not identical species, but Angelini’s technique proved as winsome en français as in italiano.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ANGELA MEADE sings Marguerite's 'O beau pays de la Touraine' from Giacomo Meyerbeer's LES HUGUENOTS in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Regina di bel canto: Soprano Angela Meade singing Marguerite’s ‘O beau pays de la Touraine’ from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Though it is more effective, musically and dramatically, in the context of the full opera than as a concert excerpt, Marguerite de Valois’s ‘O beau pays de la Touraine’ from Act Two of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots has long been a favorite concert and recital number for sopranos. As sung in Lisner Auditorium by native Washingtonian—the state, not the District—soprano Angela Meade, the aria and its effervescent cabaletta were unreservedly enjoyable. On the form that she exhibited throughout the concert, in fact, Meade might have sung the most insipid, banal pieces in the soprano repertory and convinced the audience that they were masterworks. The limpid tones that she devoted to Marguerite’s contemplation were spun like silk, and the solidity and intonational assurance of her upper register only occasionally faltered; and then only very slightly. Hearing Meade’s voice move through Meyerbeer’s music with such ease, it was impossible to banish the recollection that the sui generis Dame Joan Sutherland is virtually the only singer in recent memory to have completely conquered Marguerite’s music on a scale befitting Grand Opéra. Meade’s timbre is nothing like Sutherland’s, but there is something of the great Australian’s grandeur in Meade’s vocal deportment. There are also elements of the exhilarating fearlessness of Cristina Deutekom and Marisa Galvany in Meade’s singing. At her best, as she was on this evening, she inspires memories of the Mexican soprano Gilda Cruz-Romo, a Metropolitan Opera stalwart in Verdi and Puccini repertory whose fiery bel canto singing in rôles like Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena—rôles that are cornerstones of Meade’s repertory—is too little appreciated. The operatic world is ever sorely in need of a true soprano drammatico d’agilità, and Meade’s singing confirmed her status as today’s preeminent candidate for that distinction.

​Genaux and Angelini united their voices in a performance of the expansive duet for Elena and Giacomo from Act One of La donna del lago that would have delighted the consummate showman Rossini. Culminating in the daunting ‘Cielo! In qual estasi rapir mi sento d’inesprimibile,’ the duet is a fearsome test for both singers, the tessitura of the music written for Rossini’s wife and muse Isabella Colbran and their frequent collaborator, tenor Giovanni David, awkward for modern voices. There was no hint of awkwardness in Genaux’s and Angelini’s singing. Individually and in tandem, their ease in navigating fiorature—punishing even for Rossini—inducing awe. Genaux expressed Elena’s reticence with touching restraint, reluctant even to allow herself to listen to Giacomo’s heartfelt words. Sung as they were by Angelini, though, resistance was impossible.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHELE ANGELINI and mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX singing Giacomo's and Elena's duet from Act One of Gioachino Rossini's LA DONNA DEL LAGO in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Sulla riva del lago: Tenor Michele Angelini and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux singing Giacomo’s and Elena’s duet from Act One of Gioachino Rossini’s La donna del lago in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​A highlight of Washington Concert Opera’s past was the company’s 2001 performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Il pirata with Romanian-born diva Nelly Miricioiu as Imogene. Until presented by WCO and subsequently staged at The Metropolitan Opera with Renée Fleming in the 2002 – 2003 Season, Pirata’s legacy in the United States consisted almost solely of a single, still-zealously-discussed 1959 concert performance by American Opera Society in which Maria Callas sang Imogene. Closing the first half of WCO’s concert with Pirata’s extended mad scene for Imogene, Meade managed the aria’s cantilena with impressive legato, but it was her singing of the cabaletta ‘Oh, sole! ti vela di tenebre oscure’ that rightfully earned her the audience’s vociferous bravos. Conjuring Callas with her pointed delivery of the words ‘palco funesto,’ with the difference of Meade’s vitriol having been aimed at the fateful scaffold of Felice Romani’s text rather than the manager’s box, her top C at the scene’s end may have rung the bells of the distant National Cathedral.

​Beginning the concert’s second half with a nod to WCO’s first performance, Wisconsin-born tenor Jonas Hacker, a current scholar at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and one of America’s most promising young singers, and Chilean baritone Javier Arrey, the talented Alphonse in WCO’s March 2016 performance of Donizetti’s La favorite, offered a handsome account of ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. For listeners in whose esteem the recording of the duet by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill remains the gold standard, Hacker’s and Arrey’s performance gave no reason for disappointment, the tenor’s fresh, youthful tone and bright, ringing upper register not unlike Björling’s. Arrey then offered a stirring reading of Riccardo’s scene from Act One of Bellini’s I puritani. The baritone’s technical prowess served him well in the red-blooded declamation of ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei,’ and the polished-mahogany timbre of his voice shone in the aria’s long lines.

IN REVIEW: Baritone JAVIER ARREY singing Riccardo's 'Ah, per sempre io ti perdei' from Vincenzo Bellini's I PURITANI in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Uomo dei dolori: Baritone Javier Arrey singing Riccardo’s ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’ from Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Meade also sampled I puritani, offering a beautifully-phrased journey through Elvira’s haunting Act Two mad scene. Her voicing of ‘O rendetemi la speme’ was impeccably poised, and she sang the sublime ‘Qui la voce sua soave mi chiamava’ mesmerizingly, her legato caressing Bellini’s melodies with an ardent lover’s hand. The essence of the text of effervescent cabaletta, ‘Vien, diletto, è in ciel la luna,’ was audible in Meade’s vocalism, her coloratura truly seeming to penetrate and scatter the clouds of madness like soft moonlight. She ascended to the traditional, interpolated top E♭ with a gossamer touch, musing rather than blaring, her movingly innocent Elvira seemingly untrusting of her own emotional stability. The breath control alone that Bellini’s music demands is impossible for many singers, but Meade sang the scene as though coached in it by the composer himself.

​Angelini returned to Rossini with Narciso’s delightful ‘Intesi, ah! tutto intesi’ from Act Two of Il turco in Italia, a clever choice that offered the tenor an opportunity to summarize the best of his artistry in six minutes of no-holds-barred bravura singing. Angelini seized the opportunity with abandon, and he gave the audience six of the finest minutes of an uncommonly enjoyable evening. Anyone pondering standing in the way of Narciso’s realization of his amorous goals would have done well to note the intensity with which Angelini intoned ‘vendetta.’ Tenors who sing Narciso would do well to take note of how Angelini sang the aria: from the baritonal lows to the stratospheric highs and in every run that bridged the interval, the voice never faltered. Moreover, his tones fuller and more rounded than those of many tenori di grazia, Angelini is the rare representative of his Fach who sounds like a bonafide leading man.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHELE ANGELINI and mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX singing Gennaro's and Orsini's duet from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti's LUCREZIA BORGIA in Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Boys will be boys: Tenor Michele Angelini and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux singing Gennaro’s and Orsini’s duet from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​Calbo’s aria ‘Non temer: d’un basso affetto’ from Act Two of Rossini’s Maometto secondo—or Neocle’s aria from Act Three of L’assedio di Corinto—was detonated by Genaux like a landmine, carefully-controlled volleys of notes fired into every corner of the auditorium. Capital-region audiences were treated to Genaux’s powerhouse singing of this music in Baltimore Opera’s 2006 production of L’assedio di Corinto, but her WCO performance was, remarkably, more responsive to the nuances of the text despite the concert setting. A decade after her Baltimore performance, Genaux’s voice is richer, with a broad palette of colors that evince dramatic expression in the most fiendish bravura passages, and she retains her singular gift for articulating each individual note in roulades as composers like Rossini surely intended. Her descending chromatic scales were simply incredible: Callas, the foremost mistress of chromatic scales, would have approved. The cabaletta ‘E d’un trono alla speranza’ was as much acted as sung. Limning Calbo’s conflicted feelings with each return of the words ‘basso affetto,’ Genaux’s ornaments twinkled as brilliantly as her bejeweled jacket. The performance epitomized the qualities that make Genaux a genuinely one-of-a-kind Rossini singer: every note of the music was in place as few singers can manage, and the character sprang to life in a way that even fewer artists can achieve in music of such technical difficulty.

​Prefacing the concert’s dramatic conclusion with Orsini’s and Gennaro’s duet from Act Two of Lucrezia Borgia, ‘Onde a lei ti mostri grato ella ha finto di salvarti,’ Genaux and Angelini again partnered one another with unforced charisma, Orsini’s goading as convincing as Gennaro’s misgivings. One of the marvels of Washington Concert Opera performances is the miracles of ensemble singing that are often achieved with limited rehearsal schedules, and this was especially true of Genaux’s and Angelini’s singing in the Lucrezia Borgia duet. Their dramatic timing and responsiveness to one another were extraordinary, better than in many staged performances, and they blended their very different timbres with consummate rapport. Theirs was a performance to convert any non-believers who think that opera—and especially a nearly-two-centuries-old duet for two male characters with no post-Freudian romantic subtext—cannot be sexy.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ANGELA MEADE receives the audience's adulation during Washington Concert Opera's 30th Anniversary Concert [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Brava, diva: Soprano Angela Meade receiving the audience’s adulation during Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

​The decision to end the concert with the finale from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia looked back to 1989, when Nelly Miricioiu made her WCO début as the infamous daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Angelini was Gennaro to Meade’s Lucrezia in the 2014 Bel Canto at Caramoor Lucrezia Borgia, and the chemistry of that performance was rekindled in Washington. Eschewing ‘Era desso il figlio mio,’ the cabaletta for Lucrezia that Donizetti added after the opera’s première, Meade and Angelini performed Donizetti’s 1840 finale nuovo, with the tenor singing the cantilena ‘Madre, se ognor lontano vissi al materno seno’ gorgeously and wielding a terrific trill. His Gennaro went about the business of dying without gasping and sobbing, expiring with interminable musicality. It was a pity that Donizetti and his librettist did not give Gennaro a stronger grasp as Meade’s Lucrezia tossed a plethora of monumental, firmly-anchored tones to him. Beguilingly naïve in Huguenots, incendiary in Pirata, and unsettlingly bittersweet in Puritani, Meade swelled her golden lungs with the air of tragedy in Lucrezia Borgia. Lighter voices—Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Edita Gruberová, Mariella Devia—have sung (and, in the cases of the last pair of these, continue to sing) Lucrezia effectively, but Meade possesses the vocal amplitude that is ideally suited to the music and the character. Her chest register, never pushed or guttural, thundered with power that would have earned Dolora Zajick’s applause, but, vitally, the snarls were Donizetti’s and Lucrezia’s, not Angela Meade’s. If human hearts responded to the electricity of notes, the mighty top D with which Meade crowned the scene might have defibrillated the poisoned Gennaro, Orsini, and their comrades back to life. The energy discharged in Lisner Auditorium was staggering.

​Birthdays can be troublesome affairs. One notes the passing of the years and detects in the mirror’s brutal honesty creasing and sagging in the most inconvenient of places. Birthdays are also celebrations of having seen and done, suffered and survived, failed and carried on, and the wrinkles and rolls remind us of having laughed at our own foibles and shared feasts with beloved family and friends. For those in the metropolitan Washington Arts community, whether as practitioners or patrons, Washington Concert Opera performances have for the past three decades been cherished friends. WCO’s thirtieth birthday was an occasion truly worthy of celebration, and the concert that invigorated the extended WCO family in Lisner Auditorium on Sunday evening commemorated thirty seasons of great performances with an unforgettable evening of world-class singing. Bring on the next thirty years!

IN REVIEW: Washington Concert Opera 30th Anniversary Concert celebrants - from left to right, tenor JONAS HACKER, baritone JAVIER ARREY, tenor MICHELE ANGELINI, mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX, and soprano ANGELA MEADE [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Quintet of quality: (from left to right) Tenor Jonas Hacker, baritone Javier Arrey, tenor Michele Angelini, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, and soprano Angela Meade during ovations for Washington Concert Opera’s 30th Anniversary Concert, 18 September 2016
[Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]