Washington National Opera’s season started impressively with an uncomplicated but visually pleasing “Tristan und Isolde” staging imported from Sydney. Brian Thomson’s clever unit set presented a liminal, bridge-like space evocatively lit by Rory Dempster, and Neil Armfield’s direction didn’t intrude or force other agendas on the text.
The end, however, ineffectively found Isolde surrounded by two dozen people — not just Elizabeth Bishop’s finely voiced, sympathetic Brangaene and Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s mellow if persistently tremulous Marke, but a raft of Saracen-helmeted soldiers. Little sense of transformation accrued, given that the Liebestod was also not the most successful moment for Iréne Theorin’s generally very accomplished heroine. Theorin’s princess, passionate and invigoratingly declaimed and acted, was splendid in lyrical passages and accurate — if somewhat less sonorous — on high.
Ian Storey (Tristan) didn’t offend, and got through the (cut) text without struggle, but lacked any range of vocal color and didn’t create a persona. James Rutherford by contrast was an unusually inventive Kurwenal, though his ample voice lost some distinction under pressure.
Beyond Theorin and Bishop’s fine work, what made September 21’s “Tristan” impressive was the vastly improved playing of music director Philippe Auguin’s orchestra, which bodes well for the complete “Ring” cycle general director Francesca Zambello plans.
Zambello, never one to shrink from challenges, presented — and also directed —Verdi’s all-but-uncastable “bad luck” opera “La forza del destino.” October 12’s prima did not go well, though Verdi’s lavish score received sound enough treatment under Xian Zhang. The production teetered past self-parody visually, with overworked clichés — tawdry sex posing, graphic fighting, neon, Ray-Bans, ruined industrial buildings — presumably meant to shock. Many tittered. We seemed to be among carousing human traffickers at a container port, but the concept, even if intriguing, went nowhere. For every striking image a foolish misstep followed. Why did the carousers join the Pilgrims’ prayer? Why would Leonora, trying desperately to preserve anonymity, give solidarity hugs and taps to a dozen monks she’s never met?
The production’s best aspects were its relatively full musical text and the swiftness with which Zambello unfurled the story — no Met-style endless scene-changing pauses here.
Lower voices fared best: Enrico Iori’s Guardiano and Valeriano Lanchas’ irritable Melitone — both fully qualified if weakening on top — and Soloman Howard’s terrific Alcalde.
Adina Aaron remains a winning stage figure and an affecting actress. Tragic to hear her once-lovely lyric soprano courting destruction, with only the upper-middle voice giving pleasure. She swooped into a very audibly separated chest register, and every single note above an A — save for the final B flat of “Pace, pace” — went disastrously flat. Dashing Giancarlo Monsalve looked like Alvaro but sounded like yet another pushed, strangulated, sometimes sharping erstwhile lyric tenor. He and Mark Delavan’s initially blunt, blustery Carlo improved somewhat after the intermission, but their voices blended awkwardly and Delavan’s Italian (like Aaron’s) sounded Yankefied. Styled as Donatella Versace playing Cicciolina, Ketevan Kemoklidze’s Preziosilla proved another “Looks 9/ Voice and Style 3” Operalia Competition winner.
Meanwhile, the capital’s Concert Opera under the expert Antony Walker had a field day September 22 with an equally dark and tragic but more rarely heard Verdi score, “I masnadieri.” Lisette Oropesa achieved total triumph as Amalia, the trill-filled part created for Jenny Lind. She sang with passion, technical aplomb, delicacy, and lovely timbre within her lyric-coloratura means. Russell Thomas’ bronze tenor sounded thrilling in Carlo’s difficult music, and he (like Walker) judged dynamics well in relation to Oropesa’s more fragile sound. One wanted, however, more Bergonzian elegance in phrasing the recits, sometimes blunt.
As the evil brother Francesco, Scott Hendricks channeled Snidely Whiplash with intense verbal delivery, but the snarl-choked vocalism — which might have suited the veristic villainy of “L’Oracolo” — lacked legato and sufficient tonal luster for the music. Still impactful and sonorous, bass Hao Jiang Tian excelled as the put-upon patriarch Massimiliano. Rolando Sanz (Arminio) and — again — howitzer-voiced Soloman Howard (Moser) made substantive contributions.
WCO performs at 6 p.m. on Sundays, at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium — in time to get Amtrak’s 10:10 train back to New York after its next offering, “Il corsaro” with an alluring cast — Michael Fabiano, Nicole Cabell, Tamara Wilson — on March 9.
On October 5, a fine Mahler Fourth provided musical substance to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert under its dynamic, popular, and openly gay music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The program began with a dazzlingly executed Britten/ Purcell variations — a craftily orchestrated showpiece — but, despite Richard Woodhams’ strong solos, lost momentum with Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto — which was no better than sadly empty bucolic noodling.
Nézet-Séguin has a ways to go in mounting a completely phrased Mahler interpretation, but much of the playing was superb. Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg confirmed her excellence in the light Germanic Fach, her expressive singing aptly clear and fluid but with tonal body. Hearing the Philadelphians at home is a thrill; further Yannick vocal projects this season include the Fauré “Requiem” (in March, 2014) and “Salome” (in May).
The Met brought back one of its best productions, Tim Albery’s 1996 “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Heard October 15, a well-sorted cast sounded very fine under James Conlon, though subsequent shows doubtless brought stray orchestral details into line. The only weakish link was the callow Broadway actor playing Puck, though one wished Katherine Kim’s topmost notes and lower register shared the superior quality of the rest of her voice as Tytania. Each of Britten’s three realms boasted outstanding portrayals: Iestyn Davies’ non-trumpeted but beautifully limned Oberon, Elizabeth DeShong’s refulgent Hermia, and Matthew Rose’s thoroughly engaging Bottom, matching in humor Barry Banks’ classic Flute.
October 20 witnessed one of the best of the George London Foundation’s Morgan Library duo recitals, which pair a mature artist with one still developing. Corinne Winters — self-possessed, musical, and intelligent — wields a dark lyric soprano that suited her Russian songs better than light French material. One hopes she tackles Prokofev’s Natasha. Matthew Polenzani reaffirmed himself a total Mastersinger, brilliantly demonstrating dynamic control, tonal radiance, and that ineffable quality, charm. Ken Noda’s deft, stylistically attuned pianism proved most welcome.
David Shengold (email@example.com) writes about opera for many venues.