Washington Chorus’s ‘Essential Verdi’ is an underwhelming greatest-hits program

Correction: An earlier headline for this article had the reviewed program’s title incorrect.

March 3

When the Washington Chorus put on its “Essential Wagner” concert two years ago, I went expecting something a bit chintzy and instead really enjoyed myself. With the “Essential Verdi” on Sunday night, unfortunately, I got the chintz.

The “Essential” series is basically a good idea. An innovation of the chorus’s music director, Julian Wachner, it offers a cross-section of works by a single composer — Bernstein, Puccini, Rachmaninoff — taking the chorus and audience outside the standard choral repertory.

But what we got Sunday was a program of greatest hits. We had the whole Grand March scene from “Aida,” the “Anvil Chorus” from “Il Trovatore” and, of course “Va, Pensiero,” the song of the Hebrew prisoners from “Nabucco.” We had chunks of “La Traviata,” including the gypsy and toreador segments from the costume ball in Act II, a scene so musically uninteresting that I, a person who adores nearly every measure of “Traviata,” would pay not to sit through it.

Verdi’s oeuvre is rich enough to create a program that would be of equal interest to aficionados and newcomers. This wasn’t that program, though it had some nominal variety. There were two movements of the Requiem — a great piece, but eminently familiar to Washington’s choruses and audiences. There were some solo arias and duets. And, finally and wonderfully, there was the “Te Deum” from “Quattri pezzi sacri” (“Four Sacred Pieces,” among the last works the composer wrote), Verdi’s favorite among these shorter works. The beautiful performance from the massed forces on the stage was the most substantial and captivating moment of the evening.

One reason it stood out was that it had all of Wachner’s attention. Wachner is an exception among choral conductors in having the experience to work authoritatively with a full orchestra, but this concert was not his finest moment. It sounded as if he thought the music was easier than it is; he conducted nearly everything with a fluid oom-pah-pah that blurred the emotional nuances and depth at the root of Verdi’s greatness.

The chorus was well rehearsed and sang buoyantly but didn’t have a chance to make a lot even of a showpiece such as “Va, Pensiero,” which rocketed by as if it were a jolly dance tune rather than a cry for freedom that became a rallying call for Italian independence. At times, Wachner’s tempos were too slow (the gypsy/matador scene in “Traviata” was leaden); at others, too fast; and at times he audibly adjusted, as in the final “Traviata” selection, the chorus from Violetta’s party. (Selections were not offered with any thought of dramatic chronology, another weakness in a program devoted to a composer who was passionately involved with drama in everything he wrote.)

The chorus engaged some fine soloists. Corinne Winters, who shone in Wolf Trap’s “La Traviata” last year, reprised the part here, and Ola Rafalo proved to be a mezzo to watch with a strong “Stride la vampa” (after the “Anvil Chorus” in “Trovatore”) and a couple of smaller excerpts. The baritone Stephen Salters was a little shaky in “Traviata” and authoritative in “Aida,” while Othalie Graham was slightly uneven as Aida herself.

But even their deployment was curious. Having Winters sing “Libera me” from the Requiem, a part that’s a couple of sizes too large for her, did her no favors, valiantly though she tried.

As for tenors, the chorus was lucky enough to have a gifted young Verdi tenor, Issachah Savage, in the “Aida” scene. But rather than let him sing an aria, they opted to do “La donna e mobile” from “Rigoletto” with another tenor, the perfectly respectable but not big-league John McVeigh. The “Rigoletto” aria isn’t right for Savage’s voice type, but given that the chorus had engaged an actual Verdi singer, why didn’t they opt to let him perform one of Verdi’s many other great tenor arias, rather than offer the mediocre performance they did?

Wachner is having great success at his other job, as music director of New York’s Trinity Church, winning critical kudos precisely for his imaginative programming. With this Washington program, however, I fear he underestimated his audience and overestimated himself.

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