When the molding of Domingo-Cafritz opera singers becomes too stiff


Soloman Howard, bass, performs during an evening of entertainment at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Monday, April 1, 2013. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Last week, I got an invitation from the Washington National Opera announcing that the second year of the exchange program between the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow was drawing to a close with a special gala concert by the young singers at the Russian Embassy on Monday night.

My first reaction was: WHAT exchange program between the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow?

When you’re running an ostensibly major program, this might not be the reaction you want to elicit from the press. But the Domingo-Cafritz program often seems like a slightly scattershot operation. Founded in 2002, it was long a pet project of Placido Domingo, who often generously used the program to give chances to hopeful singers he met in his various travels. Domingo was also able to leverage his own renown to create opportunities for “his” young artists, like an “exchange” program in China that basically amounted to Domingo giving a concert with a few young singers. It was a great opportunity, but it didn’t seem like part of a coherent master plan.

Under Francesca Zambello, however, the young artists’ program is getting a makeover, with new leadership (the young coach Michael Heaston, who has the same function at Glimmerglass and is also a score consultant for the Met’s HD broadcasts) a new competitive audition process, and more performing opportunities for the singers, thanks to new programming initiatives (the commissions of short American works, or the annual holiday opera, are cast with Domingo-Cafritz artists). The program is going to expand next year, from eight singers to 10, with a new team of regular visiting artists (including the remarkable Diana Soviero) coming in to supplement the three-person staff. Continuity is represented by the longtime head coach Ken Weiss, who Monday provided amusing spoken guideposts through the two halves of the program, the Italian/English/French one and the Russian one.

These changes, though, have yet to take effect. At the embassy, it was very much opera business as usual. That is: a glittering, generous party, with drinks and a lavish dinner as a frame for a performance by six young singers and two pianists — four artists from the Domingo-Cafritz program, four from the Bolshoi’s young-artist program (which is even newer than WNO’s, having started in 2009). And, alas, a performance that left me asking, once again, What the heck are they teaching these singers?


Javier Arrey, baritone, with the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program of the Washington National Opera and Nina Minasyan, soprano, with Young Artist Opera Program of the Bolshoi Theater perform Mozart's "La ci darem la mano," from Don Giovanni. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

It’s not the singers’ fault. They are certainly talented, and clearly working hard — perhaps too hard — to try to assimilate everything they’ve been learning. Apprentice programs often pride themselves on just how hard they make their participants work; the term “singer boot camp” is popular. There isn’t always oversight, though, in what all this work is adding up to. Too often the approach results in performances in which every artist is so palpably earnest and so focused on gettting everything right that the result feels dutiful, without a spark of excitement.

But some basic advice could have helped a lot. First of all, singers should be guided to repertory fitting their voices. The tenor aria “Let not fame the tidings spread” from Handel’s “Hercules” may be a fine showpiece for an experienced tenor with coloratura chops, but the Russian tenor Sergey Radchenko’s nice lyric voice sounded worn out, understandably, for much of its second half.

Then, if something isn’t working, they should be told about it. The smouldering soprano Maria Antunez was making her final appearance with the Domingo-Cafritz program before going on to her next contract, but from her performance in the charming duet from Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz,” it sounded as though no one had taken the time to help make her Italian diction comprehensible. Nor had anyone let her know that, although it’s a fine thing to sing with your low register, her big, woofy delivery was pushing her line out of balance. She sounded too heavy for the Mascagni, and yet too light in the far more dramatic Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” — which she bizarrely started halfway through, as if to compensate for its rigors, even though she was singing to an audience for whom this particular piece is a national cultural gem. Evidently when she worked on this aria with the Bolshoi’s coaches in Moscow last year, it was decided that she should focus on an excerpt of it for audition purposes. In my view, this is a terrible decision: If the aria is too heavy, or too long, then sing something else.

Of course, a coach or teacher can’t always help singers figure out how to create sparks; at some point, the singer has to step in herself and figure it out, and you can’t always tell who is going to get it together in a few years’ time. The (Bolshoi) bass Oleg Tsybulko wasn’t quite there yet, dancing around the edges of making a bigger and more interesting sound in a restrained and oddly nasal “Vi ravviso” from Bellini’s “La sonnambula.” The (Domingo-Cafritz) baritone Javier Arrey pumped out sound as Don Giovanni and in Prince Yeletsky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades,” but it tended to be monochrome.

The bass Soloman Howard, a D.C. native, has already drawn notice in a number of smaller roles on WNO’s main stage, and he, like Antunez, traveled to Moscow last year as part of the WNO-Bolshoi exchange. Prince Gremin’s aria, from Onegin, is a good fit for his rich, dark voice, and he invested it with acting chops. But he, too, seemed muted. The Russian soprano Nina Minasyan offered a serviceable performance, straining for the top in the Offenbach rarity “Conduisez-moi vers celui que j’adore.” Both she and Radchenko, though, sounded most connected in the Russian repertory — she in Rachmaninoff’s song “Do not sing, my beauty,” he in the folk song “Korobeyniki.” The two pianists, Artem Grishaev (a Bolshoi program alum now in the WNO program) and Kirill Kuzmin (in the Bolshoi program) were adequate.

At the end, all six singers joined in a rendition of the “Brindisi” from “La traviata” that was fine in the solo lines but, despite Weiss’s conducting from the audience seats, unpardonably ragged in the ensembles.

The Bolshoi exchange is the pet project of a single private funder, the WNO board member Susan Carmel Lehrman. All parties are evidently committed to continuing it; of course, exposure to new coaches, teachers and cultures is always a good thing for an artist, even if only a few of them get to experience it at a time. Perhaps the experiences will percolate and yield great things down the road. But at the moment, it seems that more could be done to help cultivate talent that remains raw, even after days or months of curing. At least, finally, they’re getting the word out.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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