MUSIC

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Bel Cantanti Opera

The future of opera as fun, rather than spectacle or museum piece, lies with such groups as Katerina Souvorova's Bel Cantanti Opera. The company, now in its second season, does Gaetano Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment" with minimal scenery, homemade costumes, sloppy surtitles, much-reduced instrumentation (mostly piano and string quartet) -- and enough vocal enthusiasm to make up for everything else.

Written in 1839, while Donizetti lived in Paris, the opera is French in libretto and sensibility but Italian in structure. Its focus is Marie, a supposed orphan abandoned on a battlefield and adopted by an entire regiment. Marie turns out to be of noble, if illegitimate, birth, and she eventually escapes a loveless marriage for station to be united with the soldier she loves.

The opera is an old-fashioned celebration of martial glory ( Vive la guerre! Vive la mort! ) and of France: It ends with a rousing chorus of Salut a la France. Think of it as a fairy tale and you'll have fun, as the company certainly did Sunday night at Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda. Elizabeth Kluegel's bright, slightly brassy voice fit Marie's character and was outstanding in the opera's funniest scene: a drawing-room ditty that keeps degenerating into the regiment's song. As Tonio, her lover, Aurelio Dominguez lacked polish but bravely essayed nine high C's in 90 seconds in "Ah! mes amis." Matthew Osifchin was brusquely good-hearted as Sergeant Sulpice, and Andrea Hill gave the Marquise de Berkenfield real character.

The performance will be repeated Friday at St. George's Episcopal Church, Arlington, then return to Christ Lutheran Church on Sunday. It will be performed Sept. 30 at the Levine School in Washington as a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

-- Mark J. Estren

NSO Ensemble

At Sunday's all-Mozart Prelude Festival recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, members of the National Symphony Orchestra gave the ravishing Mozart Quintet for Clarinet and Strings a bright-eyed performance. It may have lacked the hushed rapture that some ensembles bring to the piece, but revealed the sunshine in the score through an appealing mix of sweetness and sinew. Paul Cigan dispatched the clarinet part with liquid phrasing, evenness of line and a mellow, gorgeous, sound.

A beautifully gauged reading of another Mozart masterpiece, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, was led from the keyboard by Lisa Emenheiser's lithely phrased, rhythmically incisive treatment of the score. Her NSO colleagues -- oboist Kathryn Meany Wilson, clarinetist Edward Cabarga, bassoonist Steven Wilson and hornist Gabrielle Finck -- all contributed affectionately turned, distinctive work in both solo and ensemble passages.

Flutist Thomas Robertello's elegant and immaculate playing in the Andante in C and Rondo in D (both for flute and keyboard) did full justice to these works, as did Michael Adcock's unusually fresh and arresting approach to the piano writing. Less compelling was Douglas Haislip's muscle-bound brass and percussion arrangement of music from the opera "Don Giovanni": In a somewhat tentative and foursquare performance by seven NSO players and four guest artists, only the boozy, tuba-heavy take on the aria "La ci darem" felt inspired.

-- Joe Banno

Washington Symphonic Brass

It wasn't the typical swing-era setting for a big band-- not a smoky bar, nor a crowded dance hall with the players on risers so soloists could be spotlighted. Instead, the scene of the Washington Symphonic Brass's big band concert on Sunday was spacious St. Luke's Catholic Church in McLean. The acoustics worked well for the event: The church's magnificent pipe organ as a backdrop, with concrete walls and a brick floor letting the music resonate with clarion sonorities.

Prefaced by conductor Milton Stevens's pithy comments, the band -- expanded sometimes with piano and bass -- transported listeners back to the '30s and '40s, when swing, boogie-woogie and other jazz styles took America by storm, radio was king and war heightened romantic sentiment and patriotism for the GIs "Over There" (George M. Cohan's WWI classic).

There were too many highlights -- most of the afternoon's tunes were arranged by trumpeter Phil Snedecor -- to name more than a few. Joe Connell on drums displayed his art most tellingly in Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" (1936). A Ray and Prince boogie-woogie setting starred the band's pop-up trumpets; and Stevens's trombone had plenty of blue notes for Hoagy Carmichael's signature tune "Stardust." Virtuoso guest saxophonist Chris Vadala (alternating between soprano, alto and tenor instruments) soloed in samples by Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Billy Strayhorn, streaking through impossible improv riffs faster than the speed of light.

The concert will be repeated Sunday at National Presbyterian Church in Washington and Sept. 28 at St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Annapolis.

-- Cecelia Porter


© 2005 The Washington Post Company