Domingo's Successful Sales Pitch
Monday, October 16, 2006
Washington National Opera's late Saturday afternoon "Welcome to Opera" concert proved an exhilarating occasion and, with any justice, ought to win some new converts over to the art.
Under the baton of WNO General Director Placido Domingo, a roster of gifted young singers presented arias, duets and full ensembles by Mozart and Puccini, composers who couldn't have much less in common with each other, yet were both undisputed masters of the genre. The Kennedy Center Opera House was filled -- tickets were $25, a bargain by opera standards -- and the atmosphere was appropriately festive.
The program was a nice mixture of "greatest hits" -- excerpts from Mozart's "Nozze di Figaro" and "Cosi Fan Tutte," Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and "La Boheme" -- and relative rarities. Among the latter was a rapturous duet from Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito" (staged earlier this year by the company) and a terrific, all-but-unknown baritone aria from Puccini's "Edgar," sung by the most polished singer of the afternoon, Scott Hendricks.
Hendricks would seem to be a genuine find. He recently sang in the second cast of Nicholas Maw's "Sophie's Choice" (which the company presented in its American premiere last month) and is slated to appear as Sharpless in WNO's upcoming presentation of "Madama Butterfly." He has a flexible, dark-hued voice, dapper and expressive, that he employs with sure dramatic intelligence; his interpretations of "Questo amor, vergogna mia" from "Edgar" and in selections from Count Almaviva's music from "Le Nozze di Figaro" would have won favor in any opera house.
Arturo Chacón-Cruz, a tenor from Mexico, was similarly impressive in two scenes from "Boheme." His "Che gelida manina" was a little rough and ready-- there is still some seasoning to be done -- but the voice is a beautiful one, shot through with sun and poetry. The concluding quartet from Act III is probably Puccini's finest single accomplishment. In this depiction of two pairs of lovers lost in the darkest moments of a winter night -- one sparring, one reconciling, both desperate -- he manages to sustain and illumine two equal and opposite emotions, balancing them perfectly. Chacón-Cruz's three partners were sopranos Tatiana Borodina and Elizabeth Andrews Roberts and baritone Trevor Scheunemann.
Borodina seemed somewhat miscast in the roles of Mimi ("Boheme") and Madama Butterfly, which she sang with a fierce, tight Russian intensity that is not naturally suited to this expansively lyrical music. Roberts's voice is marked by a quick, prominent vibrato, which was less winning in Mozart than it was in a radiantly artful "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi." JiYoung Lee was all charm and mischief in Mozart's "Venite, inginocchiatevi." Scheunemann and mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle sang with entranced ecstasy in a duet from "Cosi Fan Tutte" and Lee, Magdalena Wor and Obed Urena joined forces for the "Am-I-Losing-My-Mind?"-beautiful trio from Act 1 of the same opera.
The elaborate finale from "Nozze di Figaro" closed the first half of the program -- all nine roles characterized to the hilt and conducted with brisk energy by Domingo (I wish he had paused a little longer before moving into the Count's heartrending plea for forgiveness, however, as it may be the most emotionally charged moment of silence in opera and deserves to be cherished). The other singers included mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Batton, tenors Yingxi Zhang and Greg Warren and soprano Aundi Marie Moore.
Domingo shared podium duties with two other conductors, Giovanni Reggioli (who recently replaced the ailing WNO Music Director Heinz Fricke for the double bill of "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" and "Gianni Schicchi") and Benjamin Makino, the last of whom is part of the company's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, a valuable resource for musicians on the verge of a career. Makino needs to watch his singers a little more carefully, observing and responding to them instead of just leading the orchestra (conducting opera is very much a give-and-take endeavor). But he will learn, and it was heartening to see the generous response he elicited from Domingo, who all but ran after him into the wings to bring him back out for an ovation.
Indeed, I've never seen Domingo so exultantly happy, so visibly charged with paternal pride, as he was on Saturday afternoon. How his garden grows.