Friday, February 16, 2007

Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program

The Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is presenting an interesting stand-alone run of "Cosi Fan Tutte," Mozart's masterpiece of love and cynicism, at its Takoma Park rehearsal studios. Director Andrea Dorf has set it in "the present," indicated mainly by having the characters play with cellphones during an opening pantomime. The men return to woo one another's lovers as if channeling Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd's old "wild and crazy guys" shtick.

This low-tech showcase production -- which began earlier in the week and closes tonight -- requires some tolerance. The square concrete room's acoustics are poor and the staging makes them worse -- a thrust stage with the audience on either side and the orchestra in front. Thus, in the ensembles during Wednesday night's performance, as characters sang to one another, at least one had his or her back to you wherever you sat, making a hash of the balances.

The scrappy "orchestra" consists of a string quartet, piano, harpsichord and clarinet, though there is ample space for a full ensemble. Cost-cutting in this area does Mozart and everyone else a grave disservice, since the orchestration is as vital to the opera as the libretto. Conductor Benjamin Makino knew the score well, but with only catch-as-catch-can eye contact from the cast (due to the stage arrangement), he mainly conducted what was in his head.

The singers, however, all showed great promise and professionalism. There was a general need for better clarity in coloratura and trills, and more care with the last note before a breath (often swallowed). Italian diction sounded well coached, but no one could produce the spitfire delivery the recitatives sometimes demanded. Greg Warren (Ferrando) was perhaps the standout for his elegant phrasing and perfect intonation, though his voice wants bloom in the upper range. Elizabeth Roberts (Despina) was slightly miscast -- the soubrette voice should sparkle more lightly -- but her singing was lovely in its own right and she could sing and act simultaneously, best in the cast. The lower register of Aundi Moore (Fiordiligi) is still developing, but her high notes are going to take her places. Trevor Scheunemann, Claudia Huckle and Obed UreƱa all turned in solid, enjoyable performances.

-- Robert Battey

The Mooney Suzuki

The way the Mooney Suzuki's career has gone up to this point, having the misfortune of playing in weather-phobic D.C. the night after an ice storm barely qualifies as misfortune at all. So it was no surprise to see the New York garage rock quartet turn in an animated 90-minute set in front of a small but plenty spirited crowd Wednesday night at the 9:30 club.

The group has been bashing out MC5-meets-Cheap Trick rave-ups since 1996 but just can't seem to catch a break. It has tried both the indie and major-label routes, only to find its greatest success through inclusion in car commercials and video games. Now the band is stuck touring in support of a new album that isn't even in stores because the label that was supposed to release it last month recently folded.

Still, the decade of live experience means that the group can probably sleepwalk through a performance while still giving the impression of giving its all. And there were a few moments on Wednesday when that seemed to be the case. When frontman Sammy James Jr. climbed on top of the huge cabinet speaker at stage right toward the end of the set, was it because the spirit of rock-and-roll possessed him, or simply because it was close to the end of the show and he hadn't done it yet? It seemed like the latter, but you can't fault the guy for trying.

There were plenty of fine moments, though, and they had little to do with showmanship. Behind the garage rock veneer there seems to be a mighty fine power pop band lurking within the Mooney Suzuki. This was especially apparent on new songs like "99%" and "First Comes Love," which were more indebted to Elvis Costello than any late-'60s band from Detroit.

-- David Malitz

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