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Demanding 'Esclarmonde' Gets Vigorous, if Dubious, Workout

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 11, 2005; Page C05

Jules Massenet was after big game when he composed "Esclarmonde" (1889), his attempt to infuse French grand opera with the spirit of Richard Wagner. Massenet is best remembered for his more intimate works -- "Manon," "Werther" or "Don Quichotte," say. But "Esclarmonde" is gigantic in every way: long, ambitious, both adventurous and highly formal.

It is also completely insane, as a rare and loving performance by Washington Concert Opera, under the direction of Antony Walker, proved conclusively on Friday night at Lisner Auditorium. The prime madness is to be found in the title role, which is written for a voice type that doesn't really exist -- a heroic coloratura soubrette. If you can imagine the same soprano singing Susanna in "Le Nozze di Figaro," Brunnhilde in "Siegfried" and Oscar in "Un Ballo in Maschera" all at once, you will have some idea of what Massenet wanted from his Esclarmonde.

Celena Shafer, in the title role of Massenet's "Esclarmonde," remained vocally strong in a strenuous role. (Courtesy Of Washington Concert Opera)

He may have found it in the woman for whom the role was written, Sybil Sanderson (who sang it 100 times and then, understandably, died young and left no recordings). Joan Sutherland made a brave stab in a famous Decca album, singing the notes brilliantly but (to this taste, at least) lacking the final degree of heft and ferocity in the characterization. Aside from these brave souls, there have been precious few singers willing to risk taking on Esclarmonde.

Celena Shafer, who did the honors on Friday, is therefore something of a find. Her singing was unfailingly bright and firm, brilliantly agile and strong enough to ride over the orchestra and fill the house. She seemed tireless; indeed, her singing sounded no less fresh in Act 3 than it did at the beginning of the evening -- and this was after she had undergone the vocal equivalent of a triathlon! If Shafer's acting is somewhat on the perky side, she nevertheless manages to convey a genuine warmth and happiness in her work; against all the odds, she gave the impression of having a good, strenuous old time up there.

Walker gave Shafer a carefully unified supporting cast, placing an emphasis on singers who are fully at home in the French language, with the ability to caress shades of phonemes as well as to express literal meanings. I was particularly impressed by Dean Peterson, a bass-baritone who proclaimed Emperor Phorcas with splendid gravity; by mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, who brought mellow empathy to the role of Parseis; and by the inimitable Francois Loup, all old-world elegance as Cleomer, King of France (how splendid for Washington that this fine artist is now one of ours, in residence at the University of Maryland!).

Tenor Robert Breault sang Roland with sweet, dapper urgency, most affecting in some soft passages in Act 3 that exuded a poignant mixture of ache and ardor. Baritone Robert Gardner was all bristling virility as the Bishop of Blois; and the cast was rounded out deftly by Eric Fennell, James Shaffran and Peter Burroughs.

Walker not only chose to perform, cast and lead the opera but was also responsible for the projected English translation of its dizzy libretto, which was something of a hoot. (The love duet included deathless phrases such as "Yes, I am beautiful and desirable!" and "It's time to be united!") His conducting was vigorous and proportionate -- he has clearly thought through every note of this gigantic score -- and he summoned eager performances from the orchestra and chorus, who threw themselves into their work as though they were restoring a lost masterpiece.

They weren't. For the opera itself, faint damnations such as "brave," "earnest" and "industrious" come to mind. The Massenet we find in "Esclarmonde" is a composer of distinct, genuine but limited talents striving furiously after genius, flapping enormous, borrowed wings that never quite permit him to ascend. The opera is strongest when it is most small-scale; when Massenet tries to be Wagner, all brass and bigness, he calls to mind the critic Max Eastman's observation about Ernest Hemingway's "false hair on the chest" school of writing. "Esclarmonde" is performable -- Shafer and Washington Concert Opera have proved it -- but I don't predict any mad rush to do it again. To put it in mountaineering terms, this may be one of the Himalayas -- it is big and daunting and you could get killed out there -- but, after all is said and done, it is a very minor Himalaya, and most climbers will want to take deadly risks on more rewarding peaks.

Still, Washington Concert Opera -- so recently threatened with extinction -- is to be commended for giving us something so out of the ordinary, and for presenting it with such vigor and care. The troupe's next production will be Verdi's "Luisa Miller," at Lisner, on June 5 (www.concertopera.org).

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