CLASSICAL MUSIC

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Baltimore Opera

A once-controversial Donizetti rarity, "Maria Stuarda" had its premiere in 1835, the same year as the composer's "Lucia di Lammermoor." But its portrayal of monarchs in deadly conflict so enraged the censors that it was not seen again in Donizetti's lifetime. It fell into neglect until 1958, later becoming a showpiece for Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland.

Based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, the opera details the fatal political-religious battle between Mary Stuart, known as Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I -- called her sister in the opera to ratchet up the tension.

In the Baltimore Opera's production at the Lyric Opera House on Saturday, Gabriele Fontana was a haughty, determined and intense Maria, equally capable of thrilling high notes and emotive drama in her confession, "Quando di luce rosea." Fabiana Bravo was equally impressive as a fiery, determined Elisabetta whose looks really could kill. She sang with pure, clear tones despite being immersed in regal dresses that seemed to outweigh her.

In their confrontation scene -- the opera's highlight, although it never happened in real life -- the sopranos practically sparked each other into flame, flinging curses whose intensity is not often heard in opera.

Gregory Kunde had the thankless role of Leicester -- the two queens' supposed love for him is a plot point that never really works. He sang with emotion, but his voice was a touch rough and breathy. Stephen Gaertner was a solid Talbot and Madeleine Gray an empathetic Anna. Andrea Licata's precise conducting was sensitive to every nuance of the score.

"Maria Stuarda" is not a masterpiece, but Baltimore Opera gave it a masterly presentation. It will be repeated on Wednesday at 7:30, Friday at 8:15 and Sunday at 3 p.m.

-- Mark J. Estren

Ying Quartet

The Ying Quartet gave a ravishing concert Saturday at the Kreeger Museum, inserting Stravinsky's complete works for string quartet between Beethoven's Op. 18, No. 3, and his late Op. 132.

For the massive Op. 132, the players found the precarious balance where sheer agony and triumphant beauty intersect: a point of equilibrium that rules the entire course of this piece. The Yings, all siblings (violinists Timothy and Janet, violist Phillip and cellist David), journeyed over the first movement's foreboding landscape, releasing its elaborate course of development spawned from a brief melodic figure. The Yings romped with seeming ease through the second Allegro, virtually a waltz framing an evocative pastoral trio. By the final movements, it became clear that the players had been closely heeding the unfolding of Beethoven's dark, ever-intensifying passion that concluded with an overwhelming sense of transfiguration.

In the hands of the musicians, the Op. 18 quartet voiced a similar, but less violent, sense of struggle and defiance pervading the whole, for the quartet was composed just as the 30-year-old Beethoven -- contemptuous and surly in public -- was realizing that he would eventually succumb to deafness. The Yings swept through the piece with unanimity and a sumptuous tone.

As a refreshing interlude between the two Beethovens, the musicians played everything that Stravinsky ever wrote for their medium (no single piece lasting more than a few minutes): "Three Pieces" ("Danse," "Excentrique" and "Cantique"); "In Memoriam Raoul Dufy" and "Concertino." The quartet subtly expressed all of this music's artfully crafted momentum and unrelenting tension.

-- Cecelia Porter


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