On September 9th, the Washington Concert Opera opened its 2011-2012 season with a triumphant performance of Verdi’s early masterpiece: Attila, held at the Lisner Auditorium at the campus of George Washington University. Alongside other concert opera companies such as Opera Orchestra of New York and Teatro Grattacielo, the Washington Concert Opera company serves our esteemed art form by reminding operagoers that there is much to relish in the old school traditions that are quickly fading in today’s opera scene: Opera is expression though music, not gimmicks, and a quote from the company’s website, is testament to both their mission as well as serving unintended commentary of the strange times we find ourselves in today: “There are no sets, costumes or (usually) props to distract the eye….and ear….from the operatic score”. In essence, the audience is mercifully allowed to focus on the composer’s musical language, rather than some surely brilliant re-interpretation from one of today’s indispensable repetiteurs. And so it was on the evening of the 9th that those who assembled before the company were able to focus on the virtues of Verdi’s score and what the artists can make out of it through the mastery of their craft.
The first to take on this challenge was maestro Antony Walker, who is also the artistic director of the company. Under his musical leadership the maestro drew both fine sonority and rich detail from his orchestral forces, yet seldom favored them to the detriment of the principals. More so, the musical gestures were sensitively unwrapped by way of both his baton and the use of his expressive hands, and once he set the frame of his musical principles he knew when to retreat and allow the music to achieve its own intended expressive goal. This fluidity was first evident in his reading of the overture, where the sinister and majestic themes were realized in a way that evoked the menace of the Hun’s advance, the might of this enemy, and the unsure pride and fear of the established Empire, all the while within the very Mediterranean boundaries of Verdi’s language. The effect that it must have had upon those who attended the premiere in 1846 must have been shattering. When the voices joined forces with the orchestra, the maestro’s support of their efforts was attentive and empathic, a necessary quality to render this bombastic piece manageable. That the music was allowed to “sing” in the process was a novelty that hopefully we can expect more of in the future.
Taking on the title character, bass-baritone John Relyea made a favorable impression through the use of a fine instrument. A regular with the Metropolitan Opera company, it was curious that he was not chosen to head the cast of their Attila premiere last year, as he would have been a marked improvement from what the company instead had to offer. Alas, we may never know why the cookie crumbles the way it does. In our nation’s capital, his Attila impressed in his opening lines: “Eroi, levatevi”, and as his introduction is halted by Odabella’s scene, we waited for his duet with Ezio to better assess his instrument against the Verdian phrase. These were filled by a singer who relied mostly on the virtues of a voice capable of much beauty, vibrancy and size, but not for its interpretative qualities; and while I would categorize this voice as memorable (my mind’s ear can still hear it), it erred on the side of remaining dramatically uninvolved. He did, thankfully, become quite alert during his solo segment “Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima” lavishing the aria with a sound of intense beauty. But even here, his overall effect was hampered by the forward manner with which he summoned the voice. This modus operandi was called out when the brief introduction of Pope Leo took place, sung here by bass Soloman Howard. In his brief appearance, the young bass generated a huge sound with a more focused tone and if the Attila of Mr. Relyea knelt before him, it impressed one as the most natural thing to do. To be fair, Mr. Relyea was responsible for the bulk of the music written for bass in the opera, and what ultimately impressed at the end of the day was his consistent outpouring of opulent, dark sound. Indeed, it was during the big concerted number that closes the second act: “No, non e sogno” that I will ultimately keep as my memory of this fine voice. Here he allowed the line to swell on its own terms, beginning with the plaintive delivery of its opening lines and allowing the voice to appropriately simmer on the main theme beginning “Spirti, fermate, qui l’uom s’arretra”. In the process, the instrument did not loose its penetrating quality despite the full blast attack presented by from the orchestra and the rest of the principals. Mr. Relyea will reprise Attila for the Seattle Opera company next year, and if his performance in DC is representative, opera-goers are encouraged to experience his work in this unfairly neglected opera.
Soprano Brenda Harris covered herself in glory through her assumption of the merciless role of Odabella, one of Verdi’s most intense and exacting parts. The olympic obligations begin early, with the teutonic outburst in the orchestrated recitative “Santo di patria” and the bravura expositions of her double arias “Allor che I forti corrono” and “Da te questo or m’e concesso.” These take the singer up and down the scale, in various permutations, from middle G to high C, then to low D at full volume, like one of those amusement park rides designed to test even the strongest of hairsprays. Any soprano in her right mind is likely to browse these pages and quietly muse: “For reals?” In recent years, as various revivals of this opera have sprung up all over the world, the casting of this role has troubled many an impresario. The result has almost always favored a singer of imposing vocal heft who is either allowed to simplify Verdi’s florid writing, or executes the requirements in less than stellar fashion. On the night in question, no such compromises were needed. Entering the stage in a becoming black Grecian ensemble, Ms. Harris unleashed the laser beams, beginning with a clean and earsplitting attack in the recitative’s infamously sudden high C and the scrupulous descend to the basement low D. What followed was a brilliant display of bravura singing the likes of which we have not heard in quite sometime. The first aria was delivered with a menacing tone as it hovered in the middle G, and as the voice ascended to high G in the phrase “Ma noi, donne italiche cinte di ferro il seno” (“But we, Italic women, cover our breasts with steel”) it dominated these notes marked “grandioso e fiero” with a fierce yet glamorous brilliance, all the while always remaining within the same basic tonal fabric. Not satisfied with the opportunities to display her abilities, she graced the music with her own variations, and when the reprise of the aria loomed near she transitioned into it by way of a stunning trill on high E and then retook her theme on high G by way of a most inspired rubato. This feat was achieved in one breath for the duration of approximately fifteen seconds. When the candenza (again, not one note out of place) marked the end of the aria, the audience had no option but to dissolve in impromptu and vigorous applause, and lucky for them, Ms Harris would have a second chance to wow in her second aria, where she again overwhelmed those present with the splendid edge of her declamation.
Indeed this role provides us with a rare opportunity to examine this voice (which we have had plenty a chance to experience this year) in such an amplified setting. Despite the test of many taxing bel canto assignments, it remains a seamless voice, which this artist can tirelessly unleash in heroic proportion and reduce to the softest whisper within the same breath. As noted, the breath control is prodigious, and the intricate divisions of this score held no terror for her. Armed with this arsenal, she is free to express, and the reprise of her second exposition was hallmarked by a change in phrasing, more inward and the tone more personal and menacing. Her Odabella was not only stating, she was projecting. Having tested the singer’s pedigree as a soprano drammatico d’agilita, Verdi places a different hurdle before the singer. Odabella’s entrance in Act One, where the character betrays her more sweet and melancholic disposition. “Can you sing lyrically?” he inquires through his score. And indeed, many esteemed artists has crashed and burned under the seemingly simple challenges of an Italian cavatina. Ms. Harris was again more than well prepared for the challenge, and soared in the phrases of her romanza “Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo,” the messa voce, reduced to an awe-inspiring filament of sound, created an impeccable line that soared to a pure high C. The remainder of the role is comprised of ensemble pieces, the first of which is a duet her tenor boyfriend Foresto “Si, quell’io son, ravvisami”. Like in the phrases of her romanza, this was an opportunity to explore a deeper angst, and when Foresto accused her of deserting her land, she moved many to tears with the heavy phrase “Col tuo pugnal feriscimi…Non col tuo dir, Foresto. Non maledir la misera… “ (With your dagger strike me, but not with your words, Foresto, Do not further condemn this damned woman.”) She was not silenced by the weight of the concerted numbers that make up the bulk of her participation in the second act, and was perhaps at her most beautiful in the final trio “Te sol, te sol quest’anima.” This was Verdi singing of the first rate, and one felt privileged to witness it. Newoutpost will continue to stalk this singer’s next move, as she takes on Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in her career next month. Stay tuned.
The role of Ezio requires the classic qualities that characteristic of most Verdi baritones: A firm, poised dark roar, capable of negotiating a high tessitura, and yet melt the ear by navigating the Italian cantinela. Achieve this and you will have the audience in your pocket. Though he was vigorously applauded for his efforts, I found baritone Jason Stearns handling of this role to be quite alarming. Throughout the evening, he generously unleashed a voice of tremendous volume, but the quality of its emission was compromised as he ascended upwards. Unleashed in such generous manner, the color of the top notes lost a substantial amount of luster, yet what remained was not a dead spot. Rather, the color was very much in line of a dark tenor voice. The subsequent effort to darken these tones was audible, and at time overtook his focus from far more important endeavors. So though his entrance in the prologue impressed (“Attila!”, he snarled, and the audience sat up), the style did not become him, and his famous phrase in the duet with Attila did not inspire one to place a hand over the heart. This summed up to a major pout, as the sheer bite of the voice promised to satisfy in so many ways. Alas, the shortcomings persisted through the duration of his second act opener, the aria “Dagli immortali vertici”. Concerns with color combined with an increasingly faulty intonation, making for an incomplete aural experience: The song was not heard in its full splendor. He rallied to make up for these deficiencies by enthusiastically embarking in his cabaletta “E gettata la mia sorte,.” The impression was certainly bettered during this number, yet some of the attacks at the top were snatched at in an ungainly fashion, and one unfortunate unwritten high G during the reprise lost it’s footing from under him. The audience was nonplused by these shortcomings, and handsomely rewarded his work. Hey, what do I know?! Still, the thought lingered in the back of my noodle: Was I looking at a singer who had temporarily lapsed in technique, or was this a case of fach confusion? Only further investigation of this singer’s path is likely to shed light on these inquiries.
The tenor role of Foresto may not be always seen as part of Attila’s top billing, but we must not forget that Verdi has endowed him with two full arias, and an extended duet and trio with the prima donna (even the title role cannot boast of this!). There is even an alternate aria written by Verdi (as a favor to Rossini) for the tenor Ivanoff, just in case anyone is looking to further spice up this score. The role was sensitively sung by Arthur Espitiru, whose tenor instrument was admittedly cut from a lighter fabric than the rest of the singers. That said, I would reject the idea that he was miscast in the part: He may have been a junior Foresto, but he was a very Italian one who knew how to modulate his resources to recall an era when tenors phrased beautifully. We were given a first taste of his voice following the storm scene during the second scene of the Prologue. Out of the chorus of monks and refugees came a beautiful limpid tenor pealing out “Qui, qui sostiamo.” He is a young man, and being cast alongside vocal battleships to interpret a Verdi score may have inspired him to force his instrument past its natural boundaries, but to my ear he rarely did. Instead the hallmark of his singing rested in his heartfelt, informed adherence to the Italian style. His first aria, “Ella in poter del barbaro,” enthralled the audience as Mr. Espiritu graced it with both beauty of tone and a rightly weighed turn of phrase. That said, the heroic moments came up a little short, and his rousing of the refugees through the cabaletta “Cara patria, gia madre e reina” lacked the necessary virility to convince. Later during the first act, he embarked in a duet with the soprano, and if he was not the sonorous match to Brenda Harris’ clarion Odabella, he did not trail back in intensity. For a moment, I fancied myself before the presence of singers from the 1960s, each producing vocal sentences that added up to essays of wonderful music, each inspiring the best from one another. Whether this will inspire me to break up my own reviews in smaller paragraphs remains to be seen (I know, I know…!). The flanks of the tenor fach were further complimented by the presence of James Flora in the small role of Attila’s servant Uldino. Mr. Flora is a sturdy singer, and though Uldino is a comprimario part, he is uncharacteristically onstage all the time (we even learn in the last act that he has switched to the roman camp). It is our hope that Mr. Flora’s next role will include a solo so he can fulfill some of the promise we heard at Attila.
The Washington Concert Opera turns next to Camille Saint-Saens Samson et Dalila, and the cast will include Brandon Jovanovich in the tile role, Michelle DeYoung as Dalilah, and Greer Grimsley as the High Priest. For more information, please visit the company’s site at: http://www.concertopera.org/.