31 May 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — COSÌ FAN TUTTE (M. Hansen, L. Chavez, K. Richardson, P. Suliandziga, S. Kim, D. Sedov; Opera in Williamsburg, 29 May 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera in Williamsburg's 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's COSÌ FAN TUTTE [Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti, K. 588Meredith Hansen (Fiordigili), Lisa Chavez (Dorabella), Kyaunnee Richardson (Despina), Pavel Suliandziga (Ferrando), Suchan Kim (Guglielmo), Denis Sedov (Don Alfonso); Opera in Williamsburg Chamber Orchestra; Paul Nadler, conductor [Isabel Milenski, stage director; Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer; Troy Martin-O’Shia, lighting designer; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Opera in Williamsburg, Kimball Theatre, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Sunday, 29 May 2022]

At the time of his death on 17 August 1838, the Italian poet and priest Lorenzo da Ponte dwelled not in an opulent Viennese abode befitting the foremost librettist in the Habsburg capital in the final quarter of the Eighteenth Century but in a relatively modest flat in New York City. Following the ends of his work with his most celebrated musical collaborator and his career at the imperial court, effected by the respective deaths of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emperor Joseph II, da Ponte sought new opportunities, settling first in Britain and later in the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1828. Like many immigrants to the USA, da Ponte overcame many setbacks during his three decades in the New World, but even successes like founding the precursor of today’s Metropolitan Opera did not eclipse the legacy of his association with Mozart.

First performed in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 26 January 1790, Così fan tutte was the final fruit of the partnership between da Ponte and Mozart that also yielded Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Traditional notions of da Ponte’s work with Mozart have been upended in the past half-century by musicological discoveries of evidence suggesting that the libretto of Così fan tutte was originally intended not for Mozart but for the Salzburger’s superior at the court of Joseph II, Antonio Salieri. Why Salieri might have abandoned the project after having composed the recently-unearthed music for it has not yet been established. Whatever motivated the reassignment, Così landing in Mozart’s hands was one of the most fortuitous occurrences in opera’s history. In Così, Mozart and da Ponte further refined the art of creating nuanced characters through their interactions with one another that so distinguished Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, propelling opera’s transition from the Baroque focus on solo arias to increased emphasis on ensembles.

From a Twenty-First-Century perspective, Così fan tutte having long been revered as one of its creators’ greatest achievements, it is remarkable to recall that Nineteenth-Century observers, Ludwig van Beethoven among them, considered da Ponte’s libretto unworthy of Mozart’s score, the ‘immoral’ tale of a pair of lovers duplicitously putting their partners’ fidelity to the test disfiguring the noble music to which it was set. This attitude reflects the romanticization to which Mozart was subjected following his early death, as well as nonsensical proto-Victorian misogyny. Thankfully, these distortions and misinterpretations of Così have largely been supplanted by appreciation for the genius of Mozart’s handling of da Ponte’s words and dramatic situations, but some stagings of the opera continue to substitute awkward stereotypes for Mozart’s and da Ponte’s meticulously-wrought characterizations.

Fittingly presented in the historic Kimball Theatre, amidst the Eighteenth-Century surroundings of Colonial Williamsburg, Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Così fan tutte shrank from none of the opera’s complex gender politics, but producer Naama Zahavi-Ely and director Isabel Milenski brought refreshing lightness and sophistication to the work. Aided in no small part by the singers’ well-rehearsed diction, the production concentrated as pointedly on communicating da Ponte’s words as on performing Mozart’s music.

Roxane Revon’s clever visual and projection designs, Troy Martin-O’Shia’s thoughtful lighting, and Eric Lamp’s masterful costumes—luxurious Eighteenth-Century attire for the ‘proper’ Neapolitans, Summer of Love threads for the feigned Albanians, biker glam for the sisters’ Grease-like transformation, and a hilarious nods to Tim Conway and Stevie Wonder for Despina’s turns as the doctor and the notary—metamorphosed with the opera’s shifting moods. Abounding with wit and creative details like staging an ensemble in Act Two with Four Seasons-style choreography, the production was genuinely funny, never subjecting Mozart’s and da Ponte’s farce to overwrought foolishness.

Acclaimed for his work in a number of the world's important opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, for which company he has presided over sixty performances to date, conductor Paul Nadler marshaled the musical forces of Opera in Williamsburg’s Così fun tutte with unmistakable assurance. Utilizing an orchestral reduction by Jonathan Lyness, Nadler and the eleven members of the production’s chamber orchestra furnished a surprisingly robust account of the score, proving in the opera’s sparkling Overture that their collective virtuosity rendered their small number inconsequential.

Similarly, unaccustomed attention on the beauties of Mozart’s instrumental writing wholly compensated for the omission of the choral voices from ‘Bella vita militar!’ in Act One and Ferrando’s duettino with Guglielmo in Act Two. Like Nadler’s invigorating but sensitive conducting, Eric Sedgwick’s harpsichord continuo was propulsive without being over-assertive, and, complementing a splendid string quintet, flautist Jen Tobin, oboist George Corbett, clarinettist Shawn Buck, bassoonist Matt Lano, and horn player Cody Halquist executed their parts superbly.

IN REVIEW: soprano KYAUNNEE RICHARDSON as Despina (left) and bass DENIS SEDOV as Don Alfonso (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's COSÌ FAN TUTTE [Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]I piaceri della cospirazione: soprano Kyaunnee Richardson as Despina (left) and bass Denis Sedov as Don Alfonso in Opera in Williamsburg’s 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte
[Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]

A particular joy of Opera in Williamsburg’s staging of Così fan tutte was the casting of a young, vibrant Despina who both possesses and wields complete control over a fine voice​. From her first entrance, uttering ‘Che vita maledetta è il far la cameriera’ with bemused ennui, soprano Kyaunnee Richarson ignited the performance with her fiery singing and personality. Manifesting the production’s ethos, her account of the aria ‘In uomini, in soldati sperare fedeltà?’ was riotous without being exaggerated, the no-nonsense maid’s frustration with her stoic mistresses delightfully imparted. In both the rollicking sextet, one of Mozart’s most masterful ensembles, and the Act One finale, Richardson ensured that each of Despina’s words was audible, singing with consummate musicality and an engaging sense of fun.

Despina’s aria in Act Two, ‘Una donna a quindici anni,’ was a highlight of the performance, Richardson’s Despina relaying crucial life experience rather than lecturing. As in Act One, her vocal acting in Act Two’s quartet and final scene delighted. In some productions, Despina’s appearances in disguise, first as the doctor of questionable credentials who revives the Albanians and later as the pedantic notary, are embarrassingly silly, but Richardson enchanted in these scenes, too. Vocally and comedically, Richardson was an atypically endearing Despina who both earned her laughs and sang Mozart’s music with charm and technical flair.

The rôle of Don Alfonso, the cosmopolitan opportunist whose denunciation of the professed fidelity of his friends’ fiancées precipitates Così’s events, is very difficult to cast, and a few unsteady, uncertainly-tuned notes at the top of the range suggested that the music’s compass is not completely ideal for bass Denis Sedov. Despite these fleeting moments of vocal discomfort, Sedov’s performance of the part was magnificent. The voice resounded with tremendous power in Don Alfonso’s trios with Ferrando and Guglielmo in Act One, the bass declaiming ‘Ho i crini già grigi’ with expert timing. His voicing of the aria ‘Vorrei dir, e cor non ho’ was divertingly droll, but this Don Alfonso’s cunning shone most brightly in ensembles, particularly in the quintet and the exquisite terzettino ‘Soave via il vento.’

Sedov voiced ‘Non son cattivo comico’ forcefully and delivered Don Alfonso’s lines in the Act One finale gleefully. The quartet in Act Two was the vehicle for some of Sedov’s best singing of the afternoon, his smoky timbre amplifying the character’s sarcasm. Though brief, Don Alfonso’s aria ‘Tutti accusan le donne ed io le scuso’ encapsulates the wily man’s philosophy. In Sedov’s portrayal, the aria served as the fulcrum that vaulted the opera to its jovial resolution. That such an imposing voice darted through Mozart’s patter was incredible but only one satisfying surprise in a tour-de-force performance.

IN REVIEW: baritone SUCHAN KIM as Guglielmo (left) and tenor PAVEL SULIANDZIGA as Ferrando (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's COSÌ FAN TUTTE [Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]Prima amati, e poi soldati: baritone Suchan Kim as Guglielmo (left) and tenor Pavel Suliandziga as Ferrando (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte
[Photograph by Roxane Revon, © Opera in Williamsburg]

Following the path traveled in his lauded depictions of Silvio and Belcore in Opera in Williamsburg’s recent productions of Pagliacci and L’elisir d’amore, baritone Suchan Kim sang Guglielmo in Così fan tutte suavely, exhibiting command of the musical language in the Act One trios with Ferrando and Don Alfonso. There was no disputing his sincerity when this Guglielmo declared that ‘La mia Fiordiligi tradirmi non sa,’ and his parts in first the quintet and then the duettino with Ferrando were impeccably voiced. Kim’s traversal of the aria ‘Non siate ritrosi, occhetti vezzosi’ simmered with romantic zeal, a quality that also coursed through his singing in the terzetto and Act One finale.

Throughout Act Two, Kim’s vocalism convincingly limned Guglielmo’s conflicting feelings, each successive ensemble adding a further dimension to his portrayal. In the duet with Dorabella, he voiced ‘Il core vi dono’ seductively, his wooing overwhelming the lady’s defenses. Guglielmo’s anger upon learning of Fiodiligi’s eventual surrender to Ferrando’s advances was scorching, but Kim also emphasized the pain of the betrayal, thereby intensifying the cathartic reconciliation of the opera’s finale. The emotional complexity of his characterization notwithstanding, Kim’s singing elicited nothing but joy.

With his elegantly-sung, captivatingly-acted portrayal of Ferrando, tenor Pavel Suliandziga won the admiration of Opera in Willamsburg’s audience anew. The exchanges with Guglielmo and Don Alfonso in the early scenes of Act One introduced his Ferrando as a fun-loving but intrinsically serious young man, the tenor singing ‘La mia Dorabella capace non è’ and his lines in the quintet with conviction. He reacted with ever-changing vocal colors to the chameleonic sentiments of the duettino with Guglielmo, the terzetto, and the act’s madcap final. Still, the pinnacle of Act One was his performance of the exquisite aria ‘Un’ aura amorosa del nostro tesoro,’ hypnotically sung, the sweetness of his sound mitigating occasional stress above the stave.

Regrettably, both Ferrando’s bravura aria ‘Ah, lo veggio, quell’anima bella’ and the cavatina ‘Tradito, schernito dal perfido cor’ fell victim to cutting, but Suliandziga’s emotive singing in Act Two ensured that the character remained at the center of the comedy. Joining Kim in an alluring account of ‘Secondate, aurette amiche,’ he projected Ferrando’s commitment to his bargain with Don Alfonso and his absolute belief in Dorabella’s fidelity. The voice glowed in the quartet and the duet with Fiordiligi, in which he phrased ‘Ed intanto di dolore’ alluringly. Singing Mozart rôles exposes the flaws in some tenors’ techniques, but his portrayal of Ferrando disclosed the strengths of Suliandziga’s artistry.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano MEREDITH HANSEN as Fiordiligi, bass DENIS SEDOV as Don Alfonso, and mezzo-soprano LISA CHAVEZ as Dorabella in Opera in Williamsburg's 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's COSÌ FAN TUTTE [Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]Un addio in lacrime: (from left to right) soprano Meredith Hansen as Fiordiligi, bass Denis Sedov as Don Alfonso, and mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez as Dorabella in Opera in Williamsburg’s 2022 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Così fan tutte
[Photograph by Roxane Revon, © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Though Dorabella’s constancy is ultimately determined to be slightly less durable than her sister’s, there were no inferiorities in mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez’s portrayal of the spirited young woman. Dueting with Fiordiligi in Act One, Chavez sang ‘Osserva tu un poco’ fetchingly before partnering her colleagues affectingly in the quintet and ‘Soave via il vento.’ Her scintillating performance of the aria ‘Smanie implacabili che m’agitate’ illustrated Dorabella’s individual character. Here and in the Act One finale, the singer’s potent upper register gave Dorabella’s words special vigor.

Dorabella’s adventurousness was evident in Chavez’s voicing of ‘Prenderò quel brunettino’ in the Act Two duet with Fiordiligi. Then, first in the quartet and later in the duet with Guglielmo, in which her passionate ‘Mei date, lo prendo’ was one of those indescribable moments in comedy in which true emotion bursts forth, the mezzo-soprano underscored the genius with which Mozart’s music supports da Ponte’s words. Text was the medium with which Chavez painted her portrait of Dorabella, but it was her earnest, effervescent singing that brought the images to life.

Soprano Meredith Hansen confronted the daunting trials of Fiordiligi’s music unflinchingly, intrepidly approaching a rôle that singers as accomplished as Eleanor Steber and Leontyne Price found perilous. Her singing of ‘Ah, guarda, sorella’ in the duet with Dorabella announced the soprano’s vocal prowess, the voice’s muscular energy giving this Fiordiligi visceral resolve. Her part in the quintet was dispatched ebulliently, and Hansen voiced the high line in ‘Soave via il sento’ radiantly. The sextet and the final ensemble of Act One benefited from the incisiveness of her vocalism, and her account of the aria ‘Come scoglio immoto resta,’ its top B♭s and C, trills, and triplets discharged defiantly, flickered with repressed sensuality.

Mozart delineated Fiordiligi’s evolution from unshakable loyalty to sexual liberation in Act Two with exactingly formidable music. This fueled Hansen’s artistic drive, spurring her to voicings of ‘Ed intanto io col biondino’ in the duet with Dorabella and her passages in the quartet that radiated voluptuous femininity. The expressivity of Hansen’s singing of the rondò ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ was arresting, every note representative of Fiordiligi’s emotional crisis. The duet with Ferrando finalized this awakening, the soprano singing ‘Fra gli amplessi in pochi istanti’ exultantly. In many performances of Così fan tutte, a Fiordiligi of Hansen’s caliber would claim the laurels. In Opera in Williamsburg’s blissful Così fan tutte, she was a paragon among equals.

27 May 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Léo Delibes — LAKMÉ (E. Morley, F. Antoun, A. Walker, T. Hoffman, T. Raven, S. Huh, V. Filloux, L. Metzger, M.E. Grey; Washington Concert Opera, 22 May 2022)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass-baritone ALFRED WALKER as Nilakantha, conductor ANTONY WALKER, and soprano ERIN MORLEY as Lakmé in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]CLÉMENT PHILIBERT LÉO DELIBES (1836 – 1891): LakméErin Morley (Lakmé), Frédéric Antoun (Gérald), Alfred Walker (Nilakantha), Theo Hoffman (Frédéric), Taylor Raven (Mallika), Sammy Huh (Hadji), Véronique Filloux (Ellen), Lindsay Metzger (Rose), Megan Esther Grey (Mistress Bentson); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA; Sunday, 22 May 2022]

Many aspects of the world on and off the lyric stage have changed fundamentally since the world première of Léo Delibes’s best-remembered opera Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique on 14 April 1883. Familiar to Parisians in the final quarter of the Nineteenth Century, the social and cultural prejudices upon which Edmond Gondinet’s and Philippe Gille’s libretto for Lakmé, adapted from a story by Théodore Pavie, are centered are now denounced by civilized communities, yet they persist, gnawing at the fringes of progress. Perhaps this reminder of the ambiguities of societal evolution accounts in some part for the affection for Lakmé in her native France, where the opera continues to be performed, particularly at the Opéra-Comique, considerably more often than it is heard in other countries. Last heard at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in the 1946 - 1947 Season, when Lily Pons and Patrice Munsel alternated in the title rôle, Lakmé has been an infrequent visitor to North America. Is Lakmé’s juxtaposition of enticing exoticism and oppressive colonialism too uncomfortable a parallel to America’s troubled past?

Further expanding the company’s repertory beyond the bel canto and early-Nineteenth-Century works that serve as its cornerstones, Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Lakmé demonstrated that the piece is ideally suited to concert presentation, especially in today’s political climate, in which staging elements of the opera’s cultural stereotypes risks distracting audiences from the felicities of Delibes’s score. The popularity of Lakmé’s celebrated Duo des fleurs and Air des clochettes is warranted, but, by enabling the listener to focus in this performance primarily upon assessing the quality of Delibes’s writing, WCO’s musical forces affirmed that these familiar numbers exemplify rather than markedly exceeding the merits of the work as a whole. WCO’s home at Lisner Auditorium proved to be an exemplary venue for the opera, the size of the house spotlighting many subtle wonders of the composer’s orchestrations and permitting the cast to sing without pushing their voices. Admittedly, the unstaged format, combined with projected supertitles, prompted laughter in moments in which Delibes and his librettists likely would not have expected it, but even this validated the heightened connection between audience and music engendered by this performance.

In recent seasons, the playing of WCO’s orchestra has strengthened with each performance, achieving a high standard of musical integrity that was further elevated in this Lakmé. In his two-decade tenure as WCO’s Artistic Director, conductor Antony Walker has presided over performances of a broad spectrum of repertoire. The elegance of his pacing of bel canto works yielded a reading of Lakmé in which Delibes’s vibrant writing for the orchestra was the infrastructure that allowed the opera’s melodies to flow organically. Walker accentuated the score’s lyricism without shortchanging its surging intensity, Wagnerian grumblings propelling rather than overwhelming dulcet passages. Harpist Eric Sabatino, percussionists Joe McIntyre and John Kilkenny (stewards of the climactic cymbals and the tinkling chimes in the opera’s best-known aria), and the wind players thrilled, but not one of their fellow musicians was audibly daunted by the music’s challenges, not least in the atmospheric Prélude and Entr’actes. Manifested in deft transitions among scenes, Walker’s gift for adopting tempi that are both faithful to the score and supportive of the singers unerringly guided his handling of Lakmé.

Like their colleagues in the orchestra, WCO’s choristers refine their skills with each subsequent performance, building upon David Hanlon’s training to enrich this Lakmé with choral singing of an order comparable to the work of the world’s best opera-house choruses. In the opening scenes of Acts One and Two, the moods of reverence and revelry were compellingly contrasted, but the singers’ musicality was unchanging. Similarly, the sentiments of ‘Des siens séparant le coupable’ in Act Two and ‘Descendons la pente doucement’ in Act Three were differentiated, but both numbers were sung with power and near-perfect ensemble. Delibes’s choral writing plays an integral rôle in creating the hypnotic musical world into which Lakmé’s colonial interlopers trespass, and the WCO chorus performed that rôle stirringly.

IN REVIEW: soprano ERIN MORLEY as Lakmé (left) and tenor SAMMY HUH as Hadji (right) in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]La fille des dieux et son ami fidèle: (from left to right) soprano Erin Morley as Lakmé and tenor Sammy Huh as Hadji in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé, 22 May 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

The breadth of talent in the Washington metropolitan area is often evident in WCO performances, the company’s casting taking advantage of the region’s abundant musical resources. The minor rôles of the Marchand chinois, Domben, and Kouravar who appear in the opera’s ‘ scène du marché at the start of Act Two were omitted from this Lakmé, in which the ballet music was also truncated. Nilakantha’s servant Hadji is not a large part, but tenor Sammy Huh sang his music with secure intonation and dramatic instincts that were apparent even in this concert presentation. In Huh’s thoughtful performance, the brief scene in Act Two in which Hadji articulates the depth of his feelings for Lakmé, pledging to punish her enemies and aid her friends, was genuinely touching, the character’s devotion discernibly extending beyond mere loyalty.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) contralto MEGAN ESTHER GREY as Mistress Bentson, mezzo-soprano LINDSAY METZGER as Rose, and soprano VÉRONIQUE FILLOUX as Ellen in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Les intruses britanniques: (from left to right): contralto Megan Esther Grey as Mistress Bentson, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger as Rose, and soprano Véronique Filloux as Ellen in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé, 22 May 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

In the quintette in Act One and the bazaar and final scenes of Act Two, Delibes’s music for the ladies of the opera’s British contingent—the soldier Gérald’s fiancée Ellen, her confidante Rose, and the governess Mistress Bentson—was sung with apt precision and decorum by soprano Véronique Filloux, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, and contralto Megan Esther Grey. Filloux voiced Ellen’s couplet, ‘Nous sommes conquises avec moins d’éclat,’ charmingly, her upper register glowing, and Metzger’s Rose sparred with the pragmatic Frédéric with wit and alluring tone. The exasperation with which Grey uttered Mistress Bentson’s objections to the volume of the Hindu celebration—devised solely as a deafening annoyance to the conquering British, she insists—provided a welcome comedic contrast to the drama’s tension.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano TAYLOR RAVEN as Mallika and soprano ERIN MORLEY as Lakmé in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Les dames aux jasmin: mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Mallika (left) and soprano Erin Morley as Lakmé (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé, 22 May 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © Washington Concert Opera]

Aside from partnering her mistress in the famed Duo des fleurs, Lakmé’s servant Mallika has little to do as the opera progresses, but mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven made each of the character’s appearances on stage significant. She sang all of Mallika’s lines with sincerity and full, focused tone, but many listeners assess a singer’s success in the part based solely upon her singing of ‘Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin.’ By this narrow measure, too, Raven’s performance was glorious. Even in moments during which she was not singing, Raven was wholly involved in the performance, visibly reacting to the developing drama, but it was her voice that lent her characterization of Mallika depth and humanity.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor FRÉDÉRIC ANTOUN as Gérald and baritone THEO HOFFMAN as Frédéric in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Les soldats dévoués: tenor Frédéric Antoun as Gérald (left) and baritone Theo Hoffman as Frédéric (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé, 22 May 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Baritone Theo Hoffman portrayed the savvy Frédéric with humor and sophistication, credibly projecting martial arrogance tempered by empathy whilst adhering to Delibes’s Francophone idiom. Endeavoring in the Act One quintette to offer a nuanced view of Hindu society to the unimpressed Britons, this Frédéric delivered his couplet ‘Leur vertu si bizarre manque d’apparat’ shrewdly, the smile in Hoffman’s voice equally amused and bemused. In the final scene of Act Two, Hoffman voiced ‘C’est pour admirer la déesse’ suavely, Frédéric’s noble spirit emerging from his trenchant banter. Concern for the peril in which Gérald is immersed suffused the baritone’s singing in Act Three, his Frédéric divining that an untroubled resolution of his brother-in-arms’s illicit liaison with Lakmé is impossible. Throughout the evening, Hoffman sang intelligently, employing his handsome timbre rather than pomposity to impart Frédéric’s intuitive sagacity.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone ALFRED WALKER as Nilakantha in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Le père vengeur: bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Nilakantha (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Léo Délibes’s Lakmé, 22 May 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Lakmé’s father, the implacable Brahman priest Nilakantha, was depicted with unstinting vocal and dramatic force by bass-baritone Alfred Walker, whose clangorous tones imparted the cleric’s warnings ferociously. Recognizing a kinship with Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma, Walker also emphasized the paternal warmth in Nilakantha’s music, voicing ‘Lakmé, c’est toi qui nous protèges’ in Act One affectionately. The portentous lines ‘Dans ma demeure! Un profane est entré chez moi!’ wer​e then declaimed with startling menace, Gérald’s violation of the sanctity of the Brahmans’ enclave awaking Nilakantha’s fury.

The adaptability of Walker’s artistry was exhibited by the affecting gentleness with which he sang Nilakantha’s stances in Act Two, ‘Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile,’ his cantabile singing no less memorable than his roaring admonitions. The impact of his detonation of ‘La rage me dévore’ was wrenching, the father’s indignation yielding to frightening fanaticism. Still, there were suggestions of benevolence in Walker’s account of ‘Au millieu des chants d’allégresse.’ Finding Gérald in Lakmé’s presence in Act Three, this Nilakantha’s declaration of ‘C’est lui!’ was a cry of both hatred and alarm. The priest’s disgust upon perceiving that Lakmé sacrified herself to allaying the dishonor of her forbidden love for Gérald blended with the father’s grief, Walker singing of Lakmé having joined the gods in heaven movingly. Without the aid of staging, Walker made Nilakantha a fascinating, fleetingly sympathetic character, rivaling Ezio Pinza’s portrayal of the rôle in the 1940 and 1941 Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

IN REVIEW: tenor FRÉDÉRIC ANTOUN as Gérald in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]L’amant en conflit: tenor Frédéric Antoun as Gérald in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé, 22 May 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Like his countryman Raoul Jobin, Québécois tenor Frédéric Antoun brought to the rôle of Gérald the invaluable boons of native French and a voice possessing both the proper placement for Delibes’s musical style and heft sufficient to vault the ardent soldier’s most impassioned passages into the auditorium with little strain. From his first words in the Act One quintette, Antoun evinced Gérald’s fascination with his unfamiliar surroundings, his detachment from his British compatriots increasing as he succumbed to India’s enigmas. The frequent ascents to top A♭ in Gérald’s air ‘Fantaisie aux divins mensonges’ were approached fearlessly, only occasional moments of slight unsteadiness betraying the effort required to sustain the rôle’s high tessitura. The first of Gérald’s amorous duets with Lakmé inspired Antoun to vocalism of romantic zeal, his performance of ‘Oublier que je t’ai vue’ shimmering with burgeoning eroticism.

As Gérald was seized by love for Lakmé in Act Two, the fervor of Antoun’s voicing intensified. His ecstatic enunciation of ‘C’est Lakmé, c’est elle!’ gleamed, and his secure top B♭s and B were rousing but unexaggerated pinnacles of his singing in the duet with Lakmé. Both ‘C’est un rêve, une folie’ in the final scene of Act Two and the cantilène ‘Ah! Viens dans la forêt profonde’ in Act Three were articulated with riveting immediacy, and the tenor intoned ‘Quel est ce chant plein de tendresse’ elegantly. In Antoun’s portrayal, the uncertainty in Gérald’s scene with Frédéric gave way to devastating anguish in the subsequent duet with Lakmé. In the opera’s final scene, Antoun aimed Gérald’s ‘Grand Dieu! Elle meurt pour moi!’ at the audience’s collective heart and squarely hit his target. In truth, Antoun captured the audience’s adulation in his first moments on stage. In the minutes that followed, he earned admiration for his dazzling singing of Delibes’ music.

IN REVIEW: soprano ERIN MORLEY as Lakmé in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Léo Delibes's LAKMÉ, 22 May 2022 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]La voix de la légende: soprano Erin Morley as Lakmé in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Léo Delibes’s Lakmé, 22 May 2022
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Delibes composed the title rôle in Lakmé for American soprano Marie van Zandt, whose career in Paris garnered both high-society patronage and intrigue. Van Zandt’s début rôle at the Metropolitan Opera was Amina in Bellini’s La sonnambula, but it is difficult to imagine that she elucidated the parallels between Bellini’s and Delibes’s heroines as persuasively as Erin Morley did in her first portrayal of Lakmé. In WCO’s Lakmé, the prière at the beginning of Act One, ‘Blanche Dourga, pâle Siva,’ was pure bel canto, the soprano’s syncopation and trills on top B♭ recalling Norma’s ‘Casta diva.’ Morley dominated these early hazards, technical acuity seconded by often exquisite tonal beauty, and she joined Raven in a bewitching traversal of ‘Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin.’ The simplicity of her rendering of ‘Pourquoi dans les grands bois aimé-je à m’égarer pour y pleurer?’ perfectly suited the poignancy of the music, the girl’s melancholy limned by delicate phrasing. Morley’s vocalism underwent a transformation in the duo with Gérald, the initial trepidation of her ‘D’où viens-tu?’ blossoming into emotional confidence.

Aptly rewarded with a standing ovation, Morley’s performance of ‘Où va la jeune Indoue’ in Act Two, the Légende de la fille du Paria more often identified as the Air des clochettes, was sensational, the sole signal of the music’s difficulty being a floated top B that faltered very briefly. The intonation of the pealing staccati was utterly accurate, and the top Es were effortless. The Légende is the zenith of many Lakmés’ performances, but it was only one peak in the expansive range charted by Morley. Her voicing of ‘Mon ciel n’est pas le tien’ in the duet with Gérald was achingly expressive and complemented by a sublime account of ‘Dans la forêt, près de nous.’ Yet another facet of her characterization sparkled in her conflicted singing of ‘Ils croient leur vengeance assouvie!’ in the act’s final scene.

Another peak in Morley’s performance was the berceuse in Act Three, ‘Sous le ciel tout étoilé,’ resplendently sung and crowned by an especially lovely top C. In this performance, Lakmé’s ‘Quand ils ont effleuré de leurs lèvres brûlantes’ was unmistakably a cousin of Amina’s ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ in La sonnambula, and Morley voiced Delibes’s music with the poise demanded by bel canto. The last of her duets with Gérald received musical emoting of great poise from this Lakmé, who then voiced ‘Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve’ and the haunting ‘S’il faut à nos dieux’ with unaffected grace. Beyond the walls of Lisner Auditorium, it was a stormy evening in Washington, and a burst of thunder shook the hall at the moment at which Morley lowered her head to mark Lakmé’s death. Uplifted by an ensemble of artists who liberated Lakmé from the stigma of cultural insensitivity, hers was a performance that literally rose to the heavens.