WCO's 'Bianca' Is Something To Sing About

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

This time, the conductor did not sing. But a couple of weeks ago, Antony Walker, who is music director of both the Washington Concert Opera and the Pittsburgh Opera, was in the middle of a performance of "Aida" in Pittsburgh when the tenor lost his voice. Walker, who trained as a singer, solved the problem by singing the fourth act himself, from the podium, as he conducted, while the ailing tenor went through the motions onstage. Not even Plácido Domingo has done that.

On Sunday night, at the Washington Concert Opera's performance of Rossini's "Bianca e Falliero," however, Walker left the singing to the singers. The only technical mishap was a sudden, brief blackout in the middle of the overture, bringing the orchestra and chorus to a full stop; but even then, Walker held his tongue.

Rossini's serious operas lay closest to his own heart, but unlike his comic operas, they have not been embraced by posterity. Today they tend to seem uneven and long, but "Bianca e Falliero," though handicapped by a slender plot -- girl loves boy, girl's father wants her to marry a different boy -- is enhanced by a lot of awfully pretty music. It came at the end of a period of breathtakingly prolific activity -- between 1812 and 1819 Rossini wrote at least two operas a year, and often three or four. "Bianca" bears more than passing resemblance to earlier works, from the inclusion of the chorus in the overture (which he had experimented with earlier in 1819 in "Ermione") to comic-opera conventions such as the requisite "I'm overwhelmed and going crazy" Act I finale that is a feature of so many of his operas.

But there is some great music here if you have the voices to sing it -- and even without Walker, the singers on Sunday night were worthy of confidence. It's rare, in fact, to hear four principals who all know how to access every part of their voices; the fact that you could hear that on Sunday, and in such challenging music, says to me that there are some savvy listeners doing the hiring at the Washington Concert Opera.

The expected star of the show was Vivica Genaux, the Alaskan mezzo-soprano who can sing coloratura like nobody's business, as Falliero; and despite an announced allergy indisposition that initially muddied the center of her voice, she fully lived up to expectations. Genaux's technique is unique, involving a rapid-fire fluttering of jaw and mouth, but it produces a steady, even voice that flows from top to bottom without a hint of strain, like a stream of golden oil. Her big aria in Act II brought down the house.

Genaux's voice is not big, but the whole evening was scaled to her. Anna Christy, the Bianca, has an even smaller instrument, which she also wields without any strain to produce a lovely, artless sound, fresh as a girl's, and it melded gorgeously with Genaux's in their Act I duet.

Unfortunately, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who was scheduled to sing, withdrew, leaving the role of Capellio, Bianca's would-be suitor, to Daniel Mobbs. Mobbs is certainly no slouch in the vocal department, but every time I hear him I have the same reaction: initial excitement at the beauty of the voice followed by disappointment at the lack of precision in the singing.

The tenor, Charles Workman, was to me the surprise of the evening. Not that he was by any means flawless. In fact, he oversang considerably, which led to some notably weak top notes, and he is not very good at coloratura. To some these may be inexcusable missteps, but I was nonetheless excited by the sound of that rarest of animals, a healthy light tenor voice, without any nasal cast or unpleasant forcing in the wrong places. If he just sang a little bit more lightly, the flaws of Sunday night would be easy to eradicate. His role, Contareno, Bianca's father, is a huge assignment and not a very grateful one, since he is definitely the bad guy for most of the piece; the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes his Act I duet with his daughter as "one of the nastiest set pieces ever penned for the tenor voice."

The chorus and orchestra did their best, but both sounded a little ragged around the edges. Walker, however, was an animating presence who was able to bring things into focus after a sloppy entrance, or add bounce, literally, with little hops into the air from the podium. He is certainly an engaging performer. Maybe next time he'll add an aria as well.

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