Monday, September 21, 2015

WNO Opens 60th Season

Washington National Opera opened its 60th Season on Saturday and what an eventful season it promises to be! In addition to the complete Wagner Ring, it includes a Philip Glass opera, a Kurt Weill work, Hansel and Gretel and three brand new 20-minute operas based on contemporary American stories. With so many works rarely performed in Washington coming up, it is hardly surprising that the season started with a warhorse such as Carmen.

Kennedy Center, Saturday evening, WNO season about to begin

I am happy Francesca Zambello came to Washington and took over WNO in January 2013. She had previously impressed me with her creation of the so-called American Ring, her rendition of the Wagner's tetralogy performed here between 2006 and 2009.  She reconfirmed that impression with her staging of Berlioz's Les Troyens at the Metropolitan in 2012. As WNO's artistic director, she is turning an opera house of mediocre Traviatas and Trovatores into an art organization blowing fresh air into a staid cultural atmosphere of the nation's capital. Francesca (and I feel close enough to use her first name) is my only hope that we may see a Berlioz opera in Washington one day.

Having seen several excellent performances of Carmen in the past few years, most recently a live broadcast from Orange, France, with Jonas Kaufmann and Kate Aldrich, I was prepared for a less than exciting evening. But once the lights went down and the curtain up (in this case a set splitting along a jagged line in the middle) magic happened. The more-or-less standard production directed by Loren Meeker had a few novelties to offer, such as a couple of enter-acte flamenco dancers. Since Clémentine Margaine's Carmen was not an especially skilled dancer, it would have been good to see a little more of Fanny Ara doing it for her.
Flamenco dancers Fanny Ara and Timo Nuñez 

Margaine has a beautiful voice, but her entrance was not impressive and it took a while for her to assert her presence. In the first act one could hardly distinguish her from other factory girls and her rendition of Habanera did nothing to make her stand out. Maybe a more strategic wardrobe and makeup would help. Her singing improved in the subsequent acts, but the wardrobe did not.

One problem most Carmens have is how to be seductive without being ridiculous. This one did nothing different than most others before her (Baltimore Opera's Milena Kitić from a decade ago comes to mind) and her trump card was spreading her legs around a guy. Directors should make a little more effort than have the "Gypsy" girl strut back and forth on the stage, wiggling her hips and hawking her wares like a vulgar street girl. That's not sexy. Furthermore, coming from the Balkans, I have seen more Gypsies than an average American opera patron, and none of their women walk like the operatic Carmen. Kate Aldrich changed the routine somewhat in the contemporary Orange production, but in my view, nobody has done a better job of seduction than Elina Garanča for the Met's Carmen a few years ago. She seemed to have a lot of fun with it and everything she did looked natural. A singer who is not good with gestures can be made more seductive with the right clothes and a suitable wig.

Bryan Hymel was an impressive Énée in Les Troyens recently and thus an artist to look forward to in WNO's Carmen. He was a sensitive and convincing Don José, though sharing more chemistry with Janai Brugger's excellent Micaëla than with Margaine's Carmen.

Bryan Hymel and Janai Brugger as Don José and Micaëla in WNO' Carmen

Michael Todd Simpson was a lackluster Escamillo. His entrance failed to electrify the stage as a celebrity toreador's is expected to do, although there was some improvement in the last act. Kenneth Kellog was well suited for the role of Lieutenant Zuniga and Nicholas Houhoulis did well as tavern owner Lillas Pastia. The sets were a slightly stylized take on the standard for the opera, with the faded image of la Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe hinting that the smuggling might be taking place on the U.S. border with Mexico rather than anywhere near Seville.

Overall, it was a solid performance that should please anyone who has not seen Bizet's masterpiece in a while. It was also an appropriate prelude to the new and rarely seen works such as Appomatox and others that will follow. The 2007 opera by Philip Glass will be WNO's first ever performance of a work by arguably the most celebrated contemporary American composer. The reworked version includes a completely new second act, featuring Washington native Soloman Howard as Martin Luther King Jr.

An important company premiere will be a South African production of Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars based on Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Bass-baritone Eric Owens interprets Stephen Kumalo, a minister in apartheid-era South Africa who travels from his small village to Johannesburg to find his errant son.

The highlight of the WNO's 60th anniversary without doubt is Wagner's Ring. The cycle of the four operas attracts the world's attention whenever it is staged and people will travel distances to see the Met Ring, the Seattle Ring, the Melbourne Ring, and others, with the Bayreuth Ring remaining a lifelong dream for many an opera lover. WNO performed the four operas separately over four seasons about a decade ago, with the last one, Götterdämmerung given in concert form as the production money ran out. Oh, but what a glorious concert it was - with South African Gidon Kramer brooding his way into the role of Hagen to create the sexiest version of the evil dwarf's offspring ever seen on the stage. The then-WNO director Placido Domingo did a commendable job as Siegmund in the 2007 Walküre. All in all, it was a memorable Ring, the staggered performances whetting the appetite for every subsequent installment - and now making one eager to see how the next year's complete cycle will compare to the first run.

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