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Pair of Aces
At the Kennedy Center, The WNO Triumphs Twice

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

Washington National Opera opened its 2006-07 season with a distinctly unusual but curiously satisfying double bill Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

On the surface, Bela Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" and Giacomo Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi," the two one-acts that WNO will be performing together through Oct. 7, have little in common except their length (about an hour apiece) and their chronology. Both were written in 1911 and first performed in 1918.

Bartok was not a theater composer (this was his only excursion into opera), while Puccini was virtually nothing else. The one is a bleak, brooding marital drama that melds Strindberg with the supernatural; the other is a warm, smart, cynical comedy with characters that might have been created by a Florentine Balzac.

And yet they work well together, at least in the creative, intricately detailed and, on occasion, arrestingly beautiful stagings provided by director William Friedkin, which were first presented by the Los Angeles Opera in 2002. Friedkin is probably best known for "The Exorcist," an exercise in Hollywood diabolism that seems to terrify those spectators whom it doesn't convulse into pagan laughter. To this taste, Friedkin's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" is infinitely more disturbing than anything in "The Exorcist" -- and nobody even has to throw up pea soup or spin her head in a 360-degree rotation.

"Bluebeard" offers very little in the way of dramatic action, which is the main reason it is more often encountered in concert performance than in a full staging. Essentially, it is the psychological study of Judith, a new bride who slowly and horrifically discovers that her husband seems to have any number of literal and metaphorical skeletons in his closets, which she nevertheless insists upon opening. And yet, by removing the story to a symbolic level, Bartok and his librettist Bela Balazs managed to make Bluebeard a haunted, complicated and weirdly sympathetic character, whose history and motivations are never clear. The central theme of the opera thus becomes the difficulty of intimacy between any two people, regardless of their love for each other.

Unfortunately, Friedkin has chosen to undercut this meticulously wrought ambiguity by having Bluebeard strangle Judith (with a red scarf, no less!) at the opera's conclusion -- a cheap touch of prosaic villainy that is nowhere to be found in Bartok or Balazs and that, paradoxically, dissipates many of the more profound (because more painfully realistic) terrors that have been explored in the preceding hour.

There are many stunning scenes, however -- the gondola conveying the newlyweds across the murky lake, the Rousseau-like explosion of color that is Bluebeard's garden, the barren northern skyscape that is the kingdom of his heart. Friedkin imbues the stage action with the sweep and urgency of good cinema and he is a master storyteller, even when he can't resist the urge to embellish.

At this point in his career, bass Samuel Ramey reminds me of nothing so much as an aging lion. If his voice occasionally sounds parched and his low notes no longer have the dark chocolate luster that they once did, there is still never any doubt of his majesty and dynamism. In an era with so many uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting musicians before the public, Ramey remains a life force, not to be trifled with, nor to be forgotten.

Denyce Graves matched him strength for strength as a splendid, sinuous Judith, singing with greater ease and amplitude than I've heard her muster in some time. Some of the stratospheric demands Bartok makes on a mezzo-soprano proved a little daunting, yet her character remained mercurial and multi-dimensional throughout.

After such a wrenching hour, something lighter was just the thing. And less need be said about "Gianni Schicchi," both because it is a much more familiar piece and because it was so straightforwardly and deftly realized throughout (complete with one hilarious reference to the production of "Bluebeard" that has to be seen to be believed). Here, Ramey played Bluebeard's opposite, an extroverted rogue -- Gianni Schicchi, the "fixer" of Firenze -- with irresistible gusto and good humor. Amanda Squitieri sang the role of Lauretta (and the famous aria "O mio babbino caro") with youthful, tremulous ecstasy; Antonio Gandia deployed his small, light lyric tenor voice to good effect as Rinuccio; and the rest of the cast -- Elizabeth Bishop, Valeriano Lanchas, Leslie Mutchler, Trevor Scheunemann, Robert Baker, Christina Martos, Stefano de Peppo, Tony Teleky, Obed UreƱa, James Shaffran, David B. Morris and Matthew Osifchin -- worked together as a brilliant, unified and utterly crazy ensemble.

Giovanni Reggioli, a late substitute for music director Heinz Fricke (who is undergoing minor medical treatment in Germany), led the Washington National Opera Orchestra with sure lyricism and stage-to-pit synchronicity, though his forces occasionally overpowered some of the less stentorian singers in "Gianni Schicchi." For WNO, the season begins with a hit.

Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Gianni Schicchi, at the Kennedy Center Opera House in six more performances through Oct. 7. Call 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org .

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