There was a time when simple gallantry precluded public mention of a woman's age. I hope the soprano Mirella Freni will forgive me for beginning this review of her performance in Tchaikovsky's "The Maid of Orleans," which the Washington National Opera brought to the Kennedy Center Saturday night, by noting that she is 70 years old -- and still a magnificent artist by any standard.
It was, after all, the central question of the night: Could Freni, who is now entering her second half-century before the public, still negotiate the demanding role of the young French peasant girl who became a great woman warrior?
Freni and Viktor Lutsiuk in "The Maid of Orleans."
The answer was a resounding yes. Freni's intonation is spot on; her intensity is undiminished; she shepherds her powers with keen intelligence; her acting is fierce and tender by turn, as the score demands. If the timbre of her voice is not so fresh as it was once, if she wobbles just a little bit on occasion, that is only to be expected, part of the human condition and easily pardoned. Still, Freni's performance demands no special pleading. She not only sang the role but was even fairly believable in it -- no small accomplishment when one considers that she is now a full 51 years older than the real Joan of Arc was when she was burned at the stake.
Freni has been called the "last prima donna," which sounds like meaningless opera-speak but has a certain validity in this case. She began her career in the era of Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland, all dead or long retired, and she has outlasted any number of supernovae who flashed briefly in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Throughout, she has provided steady musical and dramatic pleasure. Even today, she combines an obvious strength and determination with a gentle and almost childlike passiveness. In short, she is not only an admirable singer but a downright lovable one.
The opera itself falls somewhere between an interesting curiosity and a complete success. It was Tchaikovsky's attempt to write a grand spectacle in the French tradition of Giacomo Meyerbeer or the Rossini of "William Tell" -- spacious, solemn, chockablock with elaborate arias and ensembles. Curiously, I was sometimes put in mind of an Eastern prefiguration of the work of Edward Elgar: The music has a veddy proper mixture of high pomp and welling sentiment that would later be explored by the British composer. At other times, I thought I detected the influence of Verdi's "Aida." But it's all Tchaikovsky and, while hardly his most affecting or original score, it reaffirms his stature as Russia's significant composer of the late 19th century (and let's face it -- for all the heat and ingenuity mustered by their champions, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov don't really come close).
Conductor Stefano Ranzani, in his company debut, led the Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra in an urgent, detailed, colorful and unfailingly energetic performance: Both of these ensembles keep getting better and better, and Ranzani seems to be a genuine find. Sergei Leiferkus, as Lionel, Joan's improbable (and purely fictional) love interest, sang with fervor and echt Russian gravitas. Maira Kerey was sweet and strong as Agnes, her pure, plaintive and lovely voice cutting easily through the ensembles. Evgeny Nikitin was appropriately loathsome as Joan's repellent father, and there was adept, idiomatic, well-blended support from Vladimir Moroz as Dunois, Viktor Lutsiuk as King Charles VII, Trevor Byron Scheunemann as Lauret, Feodor Kuznetsov as the Archbishop, Maria Jooste as the voice from the Angelic Choir, Philip Skinner as Bertrand and Corey Evan Rotz as Raymond.
The production itself, by director Lamberto Puggelli, was a succession of sheets and scrims and projections, alternately wanly poetic and decidedly over-fancy. I doubt whether any three Washington hotels combined went through more laundry on a Saturday night than was on display at the Kennedy Center, and it began to grow a little ridiculous. Still, Freni -- and Tchaikovsky's long, lush, haunted score -- make this one WNO event you'll remember for many years.
The Maid of Orleans will be repeated March 31, April 3, 5, 8 and 11; it is presented in Russian with English supertitles. Call 202-295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.