On the evening of March 4th, the Washington Concert Opera closed its 2015-16 season with a wildly applauded performance of Donizetti’s grand opera “La Favorite”. Central to the performance’s success was the work of maestro Antony Walker, who remains a tireless champion of the Bel Canto repertoire represented through this unjustly neglected piece. His love for the works of Donizetti in particular, which are routinely vilified by the cognoscenti as unworthy, is particularly disarming, and from the first note of the overture onwards his faith in the dramatic possibilities of this score was palpable. Indeed, through the combined forces of the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra and Chorus he realized the score with the respect and reverence often reserved for Verdi’s middle and later periods. It was a veritable shame that maestro Walker denied us his take on the opera’s extended ballet sequence. By the by, he smartly opted to forgo the familiar, yet deeply flawed Italian translation of the opera in favor of the French original. In the process, he made a compelling case for the reassessment of the opera’s dramatic appeal, as well as reinstating a decidedly French aesthetic which more closely reflect Donizetti’s original conception of the piece when it debuted in Paris in 1840. Lucky for all, maestro Walker surrounded himself with an inspired cast of young artists capable of achieving his vision.
Making his Washington Concert Opera debut in this performance of Donizetti’s La Favorite, tenor Randall Bills made a favorable impression in our nation’s capital, though his impersonation of Fernand was pleasing yet limited. His voice exhibits all the qualities of a fine tenore di grazia: trim, poised and remarkably clear. In its natural state, it is a limber lyric voice adept to the part’s high tessitura, and best suited for the many wistful and contemplative pages which are the musical heart of it. In both his aria di sortita “Un ange, une femme inconnue”, as well as the exquisite act four scene “Ange si pur”, he excelled at embodying a youthful melancholy without loss of bloom in the upper reaches of his scale, all the while maintaining a well-schooled and expressive legato. Curiously in both cases, the ascent to the top C was graced through the use of the fabled voix mixte, a practice which the role’s creator Gilbert Duprez was keen on eradicating. To modern ears, it tends to have a deflating effect, particularly when they’re accomplished through a slight break as that heard at the end of the final aria. Mention of Duprez, a singer who laid the foundations of what we nowadays consider the tenore di forza, calls out more compelling limitations which the young artist should only be held accountable for once time and experience has allows his art to simmer. Though Mr. Bills’ is not a voice one would describe as large, it is certainly capable of penetrating the confines of the Lisner Auditorium with ease, but as of yet lacks variety of color throughout its range, and his impeccably limpid tone is not yet fully capable of capturing all of the heroic and tortured aspects of the character. Fernand, after all, is more than an ingénue: He is a full blooded Spaniard whose journey takes him from the confines of the monastery to the glories of the battle field, only to experience betrayal and public humiliation, leading to a dramatic and controversially blasphemous end. Through the more imposing pages of his part, such as act one’s “Oui, ta voix m’inspire” and the opera’s final duet, Mr. Bills’ singing came quite short of attaining the appropriate weight to fully convince. This was most evident during the declamatory passage that leads to the opera’s third act finale starting with the line “Ce collier qui paya l’infamie”. Donizetti must have recognized a special quality in Duprez to become unhinged with passion, for he wrote a similar scene for Edgardo (another part created by the legendary tenor) at the end of the second act of Lucia di Lammermoor. This scene, though sung firmly by Mr. Bills, would have been better served by a more heroic and mature instrument. Reprimands aside, Mr Bills remains a very promising young American talent whose future will surely mellow his instrument into a vehicle for greater passions. His resume hints that this performance of La Favorite may well serve as a slow transition to heftier roles, and he is wise not to stress his accomplished instrument too far past its zone of comfort too soon. For all its lyric beauty, his Fernand gets more than a passing grade.
For her part, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey distinguished herself as a fine Leonor despite a seeming resistance to fully embrace the excesses of her famous predecessors. At a basic sonic level this was a great shame, for nature has endowed Ms. Lindsey with the type of instrument that almost demands such type of relish, yet we theorize that such treatment was a side effect of her musical discipline rather than evidence of any natural or technical shortcoming. Hers is a voice of great beauty throughout its range, round and secure at the top, honeyed in the middle and rich in its lower reaches. In isolated instances, such as the ensemble that closes the opera’s second act, it revealed itself quite imposing, though its owner seemed quite intent on understating this tantalizing quality when the score did not specifically require it. We can only guess at the reasons for this: She was perhaps affected by the concert format, or it was perhaps a desire to appropriately blend with her leading tenor, or even a general willingness to elevate the ensemble above her own leading lady interests. We will never know, but whenever the opportunity to fully exploit her gifts, set the stage of fire and outshine her colleagues presented itself, she invariably erred on the side of restraint and good taste. It must be admitted that while your friends at newoutpost publicly applauded Ms. Lindsey’s sophisticated sensibilities, the devil resting on our left shoulder secretly wished for a decidedly more Mediterranean treatment in more than one occasion. But moving past our own outrageous needs, we recognize that Ms. Lindsey’s Leonor was one of the best sung in recent memory, and she deserves credit for running the gamut of expression by way of informed and stylish singing that never exceeded past its lyric boundaries. Nowhere was this more evident than during her solo in the second act, the famous “O mon Fernand,” which distinguished itself by the full exploitation of the singer’s expressive singing and the meticulous care employed to deliver it, earning it the biggest ovation of the evening. But this was the culmination of a character arch she had carefully designed since her entrance in the second scene of the opera’s first act, emphasizing the guarded and tentative nature of the heroine through the use of her expressive song. Her plight was most convincing during the extended duet with King Alphonse, sung here by the wonderful Javier Arrey with whom she shared a fascinating musical chemistry. Her efforts in the opera’s final duet were somewhat undermined the expressive limitations of her leading tenor, and it is at this point that a more self-centered approach would have bettered her cause. The creator of the role, the ambitious Rosine Stolz, would certainly have seen it that way.
La Favorite is, after all, best known through its Italian translation, and the operatic ear is bound to associate the work through Italian tinted lenses. Funneling these associations through the French singing tradition has its complications (see above), and yet it was the King Alphonse of Chilean baritone Javier Arrey who most successfully balanced the disparate expectations housed in the ears of most present. It is a perplexing voice: a true Italian-style baritone that is both wide, yet focused, penetrating as well as broad. The texture is both dense and gossamer, and the manner with which Mr. Arrey navigated the role laid witness the singer’s variety of declamation as well as his deep understanding of Donizetti’s style. From his entrance in Act Two, the singer’s first utterance “Jardins de L’Alcazar” sent notice that THE VOICE had arrived, and his rendition of his opening number “Leonor, viens!” with its carefully modulated phrasing and endless legato lines, as well as the complete domination of the cabaletta’s high tessitura, virtually stopped the show. His art showcased another feature: The voice also has face. It frowns, pouts and emotes with tremendous facility, and was employed by the artist as a vehicle for expression. For his ensuing duet with Leonor, his singing took on a weighty and lachrymose tone that contrasted with his mistress’ contemptuous state, and which yielded the musical highlight of the night. Yet it was the release of his mistress to the young Fernand at the beginning of the third act which will linger the longest in our mind’s ear. That wounded yet resigned reprise of “Pour tant d’amour ne soyez pas ingrate,” sung with a quivering yet majestic voice, so convincingly focused on the tremendous moment of decision, which unequivocally showed his understanding of the elegiac expressive goals of the Bel Canto school. We desperately look forward to Mr. Arrey’s next moves.
The smaller roles were luxuriously cast, led by the stately Balthazar of John Relyea whose rotund bass threatened to overtake the proceedings at his every utterance. The short but important role of Ines was beautifully sung by Joelle Harvey’s round and gleaming soprano, and tenor Roland Sanz sang an assured and sturdy Don Gaspar.
The Washington Concert Opera’s 2016-17 season will include Massenet’s rare opera Herodiade, as well as Beethoven’s Leonore. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.dcconcertopera.org