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Mirella Freni, Gerald Finley and Ewa Podles all show true star power

“The Maid of Orleans” is the sixth of Tchaikovsky’s 11 operas, completed shortly after “Eugene Onegin” in 1876. It is not a masterpiece, but certainly a sporadically exciting, moving work. It is Tschaikovsky’s closest approach to the grand opera of Giacomo Meyerbeer, the great 19th century German composer, and an early example of the obsession with France that informs so many of his works.

At the Washington National Opera on March 26, the debuting conductor Stefano Ranzani made a splendid, bracing case for the score in the pit, and the many featured solo musicians—cellists, flautists, oboists—performed admirably. Orchestrally, this was one of the strongest recent efforts by Washington’s premier company.

The imported physical production, however, was flimsy—a matter of constantly intrusive scrims and lighting projections—and hectic as so many key moments took place behind speedily lowered curtains.

No matter. In her 50th career year, Mirella Freni (Jeanne) triumphed above these considerations with an impassioned, sincere performance that did vocal justice to this long, difficult Zwischenfach part—placed somewhere between mezzo and soprano turf, that is. Climaxes summoned up loud, but telling A flats. Below the stave Freni retains considerable dynamic play within phrases and something miraculously close to her accustomed lyric sound; wisely, she did not force the bottom notes.

Her big aria, known in the West as “Adieu, forêts,” was excellent; the following double cabaletta with chorus, exemplary. Freni is something of a wonder and the Met honors her 40th anniversary at Lincoln Center with a gala on May 15. She returns to Washington next season with act two of “Fedora” in a series of Domingo-centered events.

Sergei Leiferkus, looking and sounding reasonably young, brought his model Russian declamation to the underwritten part of the soldier Lionel who wins Jeanne’s heart—an episode in the underlying Schiller play but the occasion of a Tristan-like doomed passion, the soldier boy who brings you down at first glance.

Three deep-voiced singers from St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre brought distinction to the supporting parts—Evgeny Nikitin (Thibaut), Feodor Kuznetsov (Archbishop) and especially, the fine baritone Vladimir Moroz (Dunois). As Agnès, Kazakh-born Maira Kerey showed an arresting presence and a bright, incisive soprano. The promising Maria Jooste brought a lovely voice to the Angel who speaks to Jeanne. The only disappointment among the singers was Viktor Lutsiuk, a stylized, over-effeminate Dauphin. His tenor afforded a few stirring moments but also vague-of-pitch forcing.

At the March 28 season premiere of the Met’s “Don Giovanni,” Phillippe Jordan’s take on the great overture was disastrously slow and dreary, and one feared the worst: but once the singing began he offered quite a good performance. This is not a great production by any means—Michael Yeargan’s utterly charmless sets really do not allow for that—but it flowed better this time around, as restaged by Gina Lapinski, than with either cast under Marthe Keller’s direction last year.

Canadian baritone Gerald Finley did his finest New York work yet as a balletic, sexy and aristocratic Don Juan, singing with ravishing tonal finish and admirable dynamic shading. Singing beautifully, lovely Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri made an auspicious Met debut as Anna, a demanding role very few leading sopranos have chosen for their first Met bow (Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Jane Eaglen come to mind). Adina Nitescu, another debutante, was a bit wild in some of Elvira’s more testing passages, but the Romanian soprano gave the role a strong verbal profile and was quite a bit of fun. The Zerlina of Isabel Bayrakdarian was quite good if frustratingly floozy.

Richard Croft is a far more stylish singer than most American tenors, and his light, fluent voice is a pleasure to hear back at the Met. Samuel Ramey had sung Leporello at the house a few times before, when in 1990 he switched roles with Ferruccio Furlanetto. His days as the Don may be over, but the servant role certainly gives him a part in which he can play to his current strengths, which remain considerable despite a certain overall graying of tone. Even the sometimes-undisciplined Paata Burchulaadze proved not too bad as the Commendattore.

Importing the latest British “p. c.” sensation Jonathan Lemalu for the relatively easy duties of Masetto, who happens to be Somoan, was a waste of money. Any number of young bass-baritones, including of course some American singers of color, would have been better vocally and dramatically. The British music industry is tireless in promoting its latest commercial sensations.

To showcase Toronto favorite Ewa Podles in her first local Rossini role, Canadian Opera Company had rented a “Tancredi” production from Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo. Due to travel delays, the rich costumes by Nanà Cecchi arrived, but not the sets and props. In their place, director Serge Bennathan made—for the most part—skillful use of choral positioning and incisive lighting by Bonnie Beecher to evoke a simple but effective staging of the tragedy. Singing Tancredi onstage Podles prefers the Ferrara variant ending, which follows Voltaire in having the hero die happy in Amenaide’s arms after victory over the Saracens.

Will Crutchfield has not always been able to transfer his expertise as a vocal coach and musicological insights on bel canto to his podium work; but this was a fine reading, with a taut act one finale and the key orchestral preludes to the major arias handsomely articulated. Some of the recitative was trimmed.

After losing Laura Claycomb and Alexandrina Pendtachanska as Amenaide, COC was lucky to secure the American debut of Romanian Nicoleta Ardelean. After a nervous start, Ardelean gave a fine, sympathetic performance in a not very colorful but affecting soprano whose brightness and shimmering vibrato suggest a lyric-coloratura Pilar Lorengar. Podles, in stunningly beautiful voice, gave a lavish display of her remarkable gifts in this repertory, wedded to complete dramatic commitment. Brava Diva!

Coming closest to her artistic level was Canadian tenor Michael Colvin, who brought an attractive sound, fleet coloratura, dramatic dignity and stylistic understanding to Argirio. It’s time for Colvin’s excellent Rossinian work to be better-known.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for Time Out New York, Opera News and Opera.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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