'Tancredi': With WCO's Polish, Neglected Rossini Gem Sparkles

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Rossini's operas rank right up there with Bach's cantatas, Handel's oratorios and Haydn's symphonies on the list of vast, magnificent -- and mostly unfamiliar -- repertories by great composers. Everybody knows "The Barber of Seville," in the same way that everybody knows "Messiah" and Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony -- but what about Handel's "Theodora" and "Jephtha," or the several dozen Haydn symphonies that don't have nicknames?

On Sunday night at Lisner Auditorium, Washington Concert Opera permitted us a rare occasion to hear Rossini's "Tancredi," a work dating from the composer's early twenties. The libretto is a dubious hash made from Voltaire's tragedy "Tancrede," which Rossini, with the showbiz instincts that would make him the most popular musician of his era, endowed with a preposterous happy ending. But much of the music is sublime -- brimming over with melody, invention and feeling -- and this "Tancredi" proved the springboard for the best collective singing I've heard since I arrived in Washington more than a decade ago.

Two of the leading cast members were already known to be first-class -- the high tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who had appeared with WCO twice, and the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who was making her company debut but has sung throughout much of the world. The evening's big surprise came from the young soprano Sarah Coburn, in the role of Amenaide, who sang with purity, power and pinpoint accuracy in terrifically challenging music. Her voice has some of the silvered radiance associated with Kathleen Battle in the early part of her career, but Coburn has a larger sound, a heartier temperament and a firmer dramatic presence. She more than held her own in this elite company.

Brownlee was dazzling, as always, but he is more than just that. Pure dazzlement can become tedious. (I laugh hysterically at Robin Williams's stage act for 15 minutes but find him rather exhausting after an hour.) It was good to be reminded that Brownlee can do more than blow audiences away with his mastery of coloratura, his trumpeting high notes and the sheer daring of his vocal leaps. The fireworks were fine, but Brownlee also brought a tender, unaffected musicianship to those scenes in which his character of Argirio was called upon to sing sweetly and simply.

Blythe brought a huge and distinctive mezzo voice, low notes that were rich and plummy as well as superlative diction to the role of Tancredi. There was deft support from bass-baritone David Langan as Orbazzano, mezzo-soprano Linda Maguire as Isaura and soprano Lisa Eden as Roggiero, all of whom made valuable contributions to the evening's success.

Finally, thanks to Antony Walker, the artistic director and conductor of WCO, not only for choosing a glorious work and a worthy cast and coordinating a sumptuously blended performance, but for his part in reviving one of Washington's musical treasures. Strapped with persistent money worries and changes in personnel, WCO almost folded two years ago. Sunday's "Tancredi" served only to reaffirm all that the troupe gives to us, and how much it would have been missed.

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