Saturday, October 7, 2006

'Sophie's Choice' Cast Substitution

Baritone Scott Hendricks made an impressive Washington National Opera debut Thursday night, stepping in to sing the difficult role of Nathan in the final two performances of "Sophie's Choice." The opera, by Nicholas Maw, received its American premiere at the Kennedy Center last month.

For anyone who has seen the 1982 film version of William Styron's novel, it's impossible not to think of Kevin Kline's electrifying portrayal of Nathan Landau, Sophie's brilliant yet deranged lover. But in the opera, the role lacks the charisma, subtlety and, most important, the sympathy found in the film. We have to be able to feel for Nathan if we are to believe that Sophie can do the same.

Hendricks, a San Antonio native and recipient of a Richard Tucker career grant, sang with a sturdy, lyrical voice and superb diction, and with a confidence that belied his status as a newcomer to the cast, and one not yet 10 years into his professional career.

Hendricks dealt admirably with a role weighted down by Nathan's dark side, one with nary a glimpse of his fiery wit and thoughtfulness. In short, an imbalanced role for an unbalanced character.

Sophie makes more than one choice in the story. Besides the horrifying one she's forced to make at Auschwitz, she chooses to remain with Nathan -- a choice that will ensure her demise. All the more reason why the character of Nathan is pivotal.

Hendricks sings the role again at the opera's final performance Monday. The rest of the excellent cast, in this arresting production, remains unchanged.

-- Tom Huizenga

Luciana Souza Quartet

Chamber jazz well-suited to the recital-hall setting of Coolidge Auditorium kicked off the Library of Congress's season of free concerts Thursday night. The Luciana Souza Quartet, with guitarist Romero Lubambo, delivered a stirring program of traditional and original Brazilian jazz.

Luciana Souza led the ensemble with her remarkably agile and clear voice, a master of the staccato scat singing that characterizes the Brazilian jazz vocal style. Raised in Brazil, she has lived, studied and performed in the United States most of her adult life. In concert, her sense of rhythm and phrasing was lovely, but she sometimes had trouble hitting the pitches.

Souza penned "Very Foolish" after an adolescent love affair, though the composition is far from trite. A technically dizzying display by Lubambo set the mood, and was followed by pianist Edward Simon's equally impressive solo. Simon's talents were immediately apparent, drawing tasteful melodies over captivating chord sequences held together by his innate sense of rhythm.

Poetry by Pablo Neruda inspired Souza to compose an album's worth of songs. Her melodies take Neruda's exquisite lyrics into unexpected twist and turns, embracing a crossover jazz ballad style that evokes a smoky nightclub. Clarence Penn was one of the most graceful drummers I've ever heard. He gently accompanied Souza with brushes on cymbals in delicate passages, never overpowering though certainly never meek. Bass player Massimo Biolcati provided a rock-steady bottom and some savory solos.

Compositions by Brazilian greats Antonio Carlos Jobim and Hermeto Pascoal rounded out the program and showed how exceptionally well these players make music together.

-- Gail Wein

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