WNO’s young singers illumine lesser-known American operatic works

May 21, 2012

Washington National Opera has another promising crop of young singers in its Domingo-Cafritz apprenticeship program. It showed them off Sunday afternoon in a recital at the Renwick Gallery, a program of scenes from five American operas. None of these operas, which premiered from the 1950s to 2000, is ever likely to see the main stage of the Kennedy Center. What a shame, because any one of them would be a worthier option for an opera company than “Show Boat,” which the WNO is offering next May.

Pride of place went to the two Washington-born basses, Kenneth Kellogg and Soloman Howard, who have already made quite an impression in the company’s current productions of “Werther” and “Nabucco.” Kellogg gave a brooding resonance to the servant John in Ned Rorem’s “Miss Julie,” and Howard drew the most subtlety from his sometimes overwhelming voice as the Rev. Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.” Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko, the best part of the Young Artist Program performance of “Madama Butterfly” last year, brought a rich blossom of sound to the prayer scene of Sister Helen in Jake Heggie’s moving “Dead Man Walking” and a sunny innocence to Merry in William Schuman’s “The Mighty Casey.”

Soprano Jennifer Waters had an electric, rip-roaring sound, a little muddy at the bottom but with an acidic edge that served well in the title role of “Miss Julie,” if less so in the title role of “Susannah.” Tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney had a charming turn as the cop in “Dead Man Walking” and warm-voiced pathos as Lennie in the dead mouse scene of Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men.” Artem Grishaev and Rafael Andrade split the keyboard duties, giving orchestral scope to the piano reductions, while the staging by Nick Olcott was simple and effective.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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