On April 7th, amidst the noise of a rowdy outdoor concert held by students of George Washington University sipping into the halls of Lisner Auditorium, the delightful baton of conductor Antony Walker led the orchestra and chorus of the Washington Concert Opera in a performance of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. I say delightful because, while some conductors have been known to dismiss the conducting of bel canto repertoire as an unsavory gig, maestro Walker seemed to relish with delight as he waved to his orchestra throughout the duration of the performance. There were even moments where he seemed to be doing a can-can as the orchestra exploded under his command. It is this love of music making that keeps Washington Concert Opera in the newoutpost calendar, forcing us to be on the constant lookout of travel deals to our nation’s capital.
Having already performed Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” back in 2004, the company returned to Donizetti’s treatment of the Tudor queens with this presentation of his “Maria Stuarda”. The casting of the opera’s title role has historically been a subject of great concern. At the time of it’s ill-fated premiere at the San Carlo in September 1834, Donizetti entrusted the part of Maria to the great Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, a dramatic soprano for whom the composer would later write the female leads in “Roberto Devereux” and “Gemma di Vergy”. After the opera was withdrawn from the stage prior to its opening date, Donizetti submitted the score again at La Scala in December 1835, this time assigning the lead to the celebrated contralto Maria Malibran. In fact, the role’s low tessitura necessitates this type of athletic, dark-colored voice with strong middle and lower registers, and it is no accident that casting directors have favored agile lyric mezzo-sopranos for the part ever since. The casual casting of Maria as a lyric or lyric coloratura soprano started back in the 1970s when New York City Opera staged Donizetti’s Tudor queens as a trilogy for its prima donna, Beverly Sills, a light lyric soprano who made the role convincing by way of her extraordinary coloratura prowess. For this presentation, Washington Concert Opera secured the services of Georgia Jarman, an expressive lyric soprano whom we heard essay her first Lucias two Novembers ago. (http://www.newoutpost.com/1081/the-atlanta-opera-presents-donizetti’s-“lucia-di-lammermoor”/). The overall impression of her impersonation was favorable though not completely satisfying. Her silvery soprano impressed most when allowed to linger over a serene and wistful melodic gesture, underlining the vulnerable aspects of Maria Stuarda as victim; So her aria di sortita, “O nube! Che lieve”, as well as her duet with Leicester “Da tutti abbandonata,” were particularly fine highlights.
However, when the prima donna was required to bite back and stand her ground, such as in the cabaletta to the sortita, or in the climatic melee with Elisabetta which closes the second act, her declamation was undernourished, the lack of depth in the lower regions of her scale continually keeping her interpretation towards the serene. This situation was further aggravated when the singer was pitted against the overwhelming retorts of the Elisabetta of Brenda Harris. While these deficiencies held back her second act to some degree (she contrasted well against the more effervescent offerings of her colleagues during the act’s many ensembles) they furthered the case for reinstituting the role to its rightful dramatic soprano fach for the third. Left alone for the duration of its second half, Ms. Jarman’s efforts gradually faded towards the chorus, and were further called out by the infrequent utterances from the red blooded Italianate voice of her confidant Anna, sung here by a baby spinto Alexandra Loutsion. Her extended final scena, “D’un cor che muore/Ah! Se un giorno da queste ritorte” was well sung, but by then the natural limitations of her instrument had significantly lessened the opera’s compelling and heart wrenching conclusion. Reservations aside, Ms. Jarman remains a fine artist whom we expect will shine greater in roles more appropriate to her considerable attributes.
Fresh from her recent success as Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ with Opera Sarasota, soprano Brenda Harris returned to Washington Concert Opera in the seconda donna role of Elisabetta, a part she reprised here after having essayed it for Minnesota Opera back in 2011. The lingering question concerned her recent excursion into the extreme dramatic soprano part of Turandot, and whether it would negatively affect this great bel canto star: Often, a loss of steadiness, flexibility, and general ease in production is expected. We are happy to report that her imposing stream of searing, voluptuous sound, coupled with her ability to make it zippy to and fro the various florid permutations prescribed by the composer at full volume, remains intact. Perhaps due to the recent muscle memory gained by her recent ‘Turandot,” she hardly appeared to exert herself to achieve the sonority. As a result, she dominated every scene that required her participation. In Maria Stuarda, the role of Elisabetta is limited in its emotional scope, and the interpreter can be cornered into a two dimensional portrayal (Donizetti would give the lady a more well rounded characterization in his Roberto Devereux). A sensitive artist, Ms. Harris reserved her sweeter tones to muse over the gentler wishes of the troubled monarch in her opening number “Ah quando all’ara scorgemi”, the vocal face changing in a flash of volcanic coloratura when the ever present threat from the exiled queen was felt in the ensuing cabaletta, and when her tenor crush, the Earl of Leicester, revealed himself a disappointment (her repeated wounded outbursts after his confirmation of Maria’s beauty were particularly touching). She saved her most imposing sounds for the confrontation with her rival in the second act, and taking into consideration our assessment of Ms. Jarman’s proclivities, it can be a fair conclusion that Ms. Harris took the upper hand. She pulled the act’s curtain with the frenetic stretta “Va, preparati, furente” in dazzling fashion.
Her participation in the last act was unfortunately very limited, as Elisabetta is only featured in its first scene. Curiously enough, she opened with a duet with Talbot “Quella vita a me funesta” which seamlessly morphed into a trio as Leicester entered the scene, an effective variation of convention exercised here by Donizetti, the type of which the much maligned composer is rarely given credit for. Ms. Harris closed the scene with the searing stretta “Vanne, indegno” giving flight to her massive instrument in an inexhaustible display of brilliance and brawn. It virtually exhausted the arm of conductor Antony Walker, and in many ways marked the finest singing to be heard for the rest of the evening.
In the role of the Earl of Leicester, tenor Michael Spyres delivered one of the most puzzling performances we have heard in a long time, so much so that we feel compelled to vent about it. This young man possessed one of the most beautiful tenore di grazia voices we have ever heard. Furthermore, the poetic way with which he wrapped his instrument around the phrases revealed an artist well aware of how great singing should sound like. At his every utterance the young singer’s eyes would go fly past the auditorium towards the ether, giving evidence of his obsessive pursuit to emulate singing in grand manner. His desire to give was palpable, and nothing endears an artist to an opera audience more than this. All of this promise made his reality of his singing the more frustrating, since Mr. Spyres technical shortcomings hampered his every move throughout the evening. It was both disarming and alarming to hear this is a sweet, honeyed tenor sound, a jewel of a voice, consistently tortured by an ill-devised method. It could have been that he opened the voice too much too soon, or perhaps he abused a forward placement and tired himself out after a few phrases, or maybe he carried the chest upwards too often. While our ears pick up some things from time to time, we do not rank ourselves in the august company of the great singing teachers, but what we heard throughout the night was a singer incapable of negotiating a clean transition from the middle to high tessitura. Each attempt resulted in near cracks, substantial loss of color, and constant warnings of potential strangulation. Nowhere did this trouble most than during the tenor’s brief bravura section “Se fida tanto colei mi amor”. This odd bit of writing for a Donizetti leggiero role resembles the classic call to arms heard in operas like Rossini’s Gullaume Tell (a role he will face later this year at the Bad Wildbad Rossini Festival). To add insult to injury, Leicester gets the money tunes in the opera: The exquisite, exposed melodies that Donizetti devised to allow the tenor to show off the very type of sound Mr. Spyres possesses (“Era d’amor l’immagine”, ‘Da tutti abbandonata”, “Ah! Deh! Per pieta sospendi”), all of which suffered by the general mishandling of his otherwise ideal instrument. For his sake, we strongly suggest a complete revamping of the technique, because this is a sound we want to enjoy often, and for a long time.
The lesser roles were well represented by the lower voices. As Maria’s custodian Talbot, Patrick Carfizzi unleashed a resonant and commanding bass. It’s one limitation was its lack of a substantial vibrato, which greatly limited his inflections and forced him to physically act out his part instead of letting his declamation do the work. His dramatic counterpart, Cecil, was sturdily portrayed by baritone Troy Cook. Finally, the already mentioned Alexandra Loutsion (who sang the tiny part of Anna) possessed a full figured Mediterranean sound we hope to hear again in the near future, and in more extensive assumptions.
Washington Concert Opera soldiers on towards its 2013-14 season, which opens this September with performances of Verdi’s very rare “I masnadieri”, coupled with the composer’s equally rare “Il corsaro” to be performed the following March. For more information, please visit the company’s website at http://www.concertopera.org/