As the nation geared its attention towards the Thanksgiving festivities, Washington Concert Opera ushered the season in style by offering Rossini’s epic opera seria, Semiramide as its season opener. By the time the baton led the final chords on the piece, it was clear that the company had scored a huge success. Throughout the evening, the performance had been enthusiastically received, and at its close the enthralled audience was driven to its feet as the soloists took their final bows. It is difficult to disagree with such a display of public approval, and we will do our best in what follows to explain why your friends at newoutpost heard it somewhat differently.
It is not to say that the baton of conductor Antony Walker was at odds with the bel canto style. In fact, maestro Walker seemed well at ease with Rossini’s language, and paced the evening at a sensible and solemn trot that allowed him to get wonderfully creative with the opera’s famous overture. For the course of three hours under his baton, the Orchestra of the Washington Concert Opera (despite the occasional mishap in the brass section) sharply conjured up the sparkly score, all the while successfully creating a pliable support for the soloists. The chorus too, despite some harshness in the soprano row, rose to the occasion and provided memorable moments, particularly the complicated opening scena “Suoni festevoli”. So what happened? Our main reservations with WCO’s Semiramide were inspired by the casting of the three principal parts.
Partly to blame was the Semiramide of soprano Jessica Pratt, though she certainly carries the lesser portion of this burden. An artist with an impressive resume and a fine reputation (she has been applauded at some of the most prestigious stages such as La Scala, Pesaro and Vienna,) she has been hailed as an important new exponent of the bel canto school. Naturally, her inclusion in this cast sparked great interest and Washington Concert Opera should be commended for providing its audience the opportunity to hear a rising star at what should be (she made her stage debut in 2007) the peak of her powers. As applied to the role of the Babylonian queen, however, her work came short of conquering the demands of this testing part. For starters, there is the voice. It is an attractive full lyric soprano with the natural proclivities expected of this type of instrument: While the lower and middle tones were available to the artist, they were held in check by a pale and undernourished profile, lessening their effect and rendering them less than memorable. Things changed dramatically at the top of the scale, where her instrument grew appropriately imposing and worthy of a sovereign. It was in this range, the upper middle, where her voice became a malleable and limpid instrument, capable of mellowing into the curves of the Italian cantinela. It came to her assistance when needing to dominate the great Act One concertato “Qual mesto gemito” or when called forth to knit the phrases of the lyric duet “Giorno d’orror”, as well as her final prayer “Al mio pregar t’arrendi”.
Elsewhere, it was an essentially girlish voice, and perhaps aware of the shortcomings of her lower tones, Ms. Pratt cleverly opted to grace her singing with interpolations in the upper register whenever possible. These were hallmarked by a sizable display at a high E in her Act I cabaletta to the famous “Bel raggio lusinghier”. Unfortunately, like in many other instances throughout the night, these gambles at the stratosphere were marred by inconsistencies in pitch and unbecoming shrillness. In the topic of flexibility, so vital to the success of this score and a necessity for the true belcantista, Ms. Pratt revealed a pliable instrument well adept to the overladen ornate pages of the role, but inconsistent in delivery. In many instances, such as the cabaletta “Dolce pensiero”, runs were simplified and left unfinished. More troubling was the rather amateur practice of impressing the public by singing a group of phrases in one breath, only to breathlessly rush the ones that followed. The final tally of her work left an air of great promise that is as of yet fulfilled, and while hers is not yet the voice of a queen we hope that time will develop it into one.
A similar sentiment was proclaimed by your friends at newoutpost to reference the Arsace of Vivica Genaux, but this was back in 2000 when the then young Alaskan MezzoSoprano was making her debut in the role at Minnesota Opera. Our impressions back then are remarkably similar to those today, and though Ms. Genaux’s interpretation has significantly deepened with time, she remains essentially miscast in the role of the Assyrian general. The voice remains a soft edged mezzo soprano of light density and thrust. Its top register, though securely placed and easily managed, is devoid of any trace of the dark color associated with voices of this fach; while the middle section has developed a troubling dry quality. The chest voice, equally accessible and delicately placed, has noticeably become disconnected from the rest of her scale. Her introductory phrases, “Eccomi alfine in Babilonia” were devoid of the type of vocalism that would fill the audience with awe the way the great Pisaroni is reported to have done. In its place we were treated to vocalism uniformly slight, which lacked the exuberance to dominate the musical landscape in the way an Arsace should.
As the recitative led to the famous aria di sortita “Ah quel giorno ognor rammento” Ms. Genaux compensated for these demerits by way of the virtuosity which has been the foundation of her career. Particularly during the aria’s cabaletta “Oh! come da quel di”, she executed her line at impossibly break neck speed, and was repeatedly called upon to luxuriate in the most intricate variations and permutations that could be fitted unto the score to the excited cheers of the crowd for the majority of her involvement. This brand of decadent virtuosity, a surefire way to get applause, had the unintended side effect of calling into scrutiny the singer’s good taste, as this style of “snapchat” coloratura routinely robbed the musical phrase of a certain gravitas the singer light resources were already so hard-pressed to achieve. Despite these limited means, Ms. Genaux’s Arsace still managed validity by way of the artist’s careful and heartfelt interpretation, which was most poignantly achieved during the grand scena “In si barbara sciagura” in the second act. Here, she should be (and was) roundly applauded for transcending past the boundaries of this concert presentation and gracing her declamation with expressive pantomime.
Despite our misgivings concerning the two principals discussed thus far, we would do well to underline that we are pitting them against the high standards set by the great exponents of these tremendous roles. Semiramide makes near impossible demands of the singer, and both Ms. Pratt and Ms. Genaux deserve our admiration for their sheer survival of this trial. Though their shortcomings are real, their efforts are more than valid and they’re certainly not inadequate. That adjective could be applied to the Assur of bass-baritone Wayne Tigges with less hesitation. A singer of disparate qualities, he was mercilessly called out by the exacting score at every turn, and from his very entrance in the ensemble “Sì, sperate; sì, esultate” seldom have we been treated to a singer whose instrument and method seemed so alien to the repertoire at hand. His is a sizable, penetrating baritone of an oddly bright color and leathery consistency. The bass portion of his designation was awkwardly absent through the performance, and the audience was treated to what amounted to silence when the score called for it. His manner of singing was equally puzzling: A predominantly forward placement hijacked by random coverings and shifts to the upper palate, sometimes even in mid phrase.
Furthermore, passages requiring flexibility, which abound in this opera and spare no voice type, revealed more oddities. The gamut of physical mannerisms exhibited by singers who negotiate florid music abound in opera, from Cecilia Bartoli’s eyebrows to Ms. Genaux’s jittery jaw. But what Mr. Tigges does when faced with a series of triplets is certainly suis generis, and can only be described as a rapid flapping of the cheeks coupled with a look of slight discomfort whenever the score necessitated melisma. The results were not terribly becoming, and his share of the two important duets with the leading ladies were found wanting. The audience got a chance to qualify his solo effort, a very rare gift to the bass by Rossini in the form of a mad scene “Deh ti ferma…ti placa…perdona”, which Mr. Tigges delivered in clumsy manner and earned him polite applause. We should credit the singer with embodying the profile of the opera’s villain, though he succeeded by means foreign to the bel canto style and more appropriate to the verismo school.
Out of the four main principals, the Idreno of tenor Taylor Stayton provided the most satisfying all around musical portrayal. The possessor of an athletic tenor of the leggiero class, Mr. Stayton’s voice was adept at the intricate turns of his role and equalized in tone and projection in all its registers. His handling of florid passages, while flashy, was not excessive and did not exhibit the square phrasing which deadens the impact of some of the more famous exponents of this part. Sadly, we could only measure his talents by way of his second act offering “La speranza piu soave” as his act one showpiece “Ah dove il cimento,” was regrettably omitted. The remaining cast members also fared well. The puzzling role of the princess Azema (she is the common object of adoration in the opera yet appears in recitative only) is usually carelessly cast. Entrusted in this occasion to soprano Natalie Conde, it was delivered with confidence and assured manner by the young singer. The wounded state of the bass fach was greatly improved by the Oroe of bass-baritone Evan Hughes and the Nino of bass Wei Wu, who following Mr. Tigges’ faltering did much to re-establish the honor of the lower voices within the confines of the Lisner Auditorium.
Washington Concert Opera will follow Rossini’s Semiramide with another rare bel canto gem in February 2016, Donizetti’s La Favorite. Your friends at newoutpost remain appreciative of the company’s efforts to advance the cause of Italian bel canto and hope you will join us then. For tickets and more information, please be sure to visit the company’s website at www.concertopera.org