Mezzo-Soprano's Glorious Debut Lifts 'Cavalleria'

Dolora Zajick in a riveting performance as Santuzza in Washington National Opera's
Dolora Zajick in a riveting performance as Santuzza in Washington National Opera's "Cavalleria Rusticana." (By Leah L. Jones)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Dolora Zajick, 56, has long been the reigning American mezzo-soprano. She is a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, where she is unequaled in the major Verdi roles (Amneris, Azucena, even Eboli).

We must pause here as fans of Olga Borodina rise up in protest. Calm down, people. Borodina is fine in these roles, but for my money, Saint-Saens's Delilah is a better fit for her. But, counter my conveniently fictional Borodina fans, Zajick just pumps out sound without much dramatic inflection.

This has been one segment of the conventional wisdom about Zajick for far too long. And Sunday afternoon's concert performance of "Cavalleria Rusticana," in which Zajick made her astonishingly late debut at the Washington National Opera, showed that it is just plain wrong. Anyone who has hitherto failed to "get" Zajick should be invited -- no, forced! -- to hear this "Cavalleria," which repeats once more on Friday night at the Kennedy Center. For her performance as Santuzza on Sunday was the best singing that I have heard, not only in Washington but anywhere, in a long, long time.

This was an old-school Santuzza: gorgeously sung and deeply felt, showing that the one is not possible without the other. Seeing the opera without sets and costumes was actually refreshing because it allowed an unmitigated view of the singer's emotional commitment in all its simple, tremendous power.

Santuzza, a rural Sicilian woman who loved unwisely and finds herself pregnant, jilted and shut out of village society, is onstage without a break for the whole heart of this hour-long work, and Zajick never let down for a moment of it. In the "Regina Coeli," usually no more than a rousing ensemble when Santuzza joins the townspeople in praising the Lord on Easter morning, she not only soared effortlessly over the full chorus and orchestra (who sounded anemic in comparison), but so poignantly conveyed the inner anguish of the ostracized woman aching for forgiveness that she appeared to be on the brink of tears. (Her listeners certainly were.)

Nor, by any means, was she only loud; some of her strongest moments were soft passages of imploring that brought out her character's pain with hurt gentleness. If you wanted to nitpick, you could say that her very top notes sounded a bit tarnished, but there was no point in nitpicking when offered such floods of glorious sound that you didn't want them to stop.

It didn't hurt that Turridu, her no-account lover, was her vocal equal, at least in terms of volume. Salvatore Licitra is the most maddening of today's maddening crop of almost-but-not-quite-there tenors taking the lead roles around the opera world. He's maddening because he has a glorious voice and is all over the place in the way he uses it. If a singer onstage Sunday could be criticized for pumping out sound without inflection, it was he; he almost came to grief in the opening offstage aubade, which should be anything but difficult and anything but shouted. He also sometimes is careless about details (like the correct pitch). In past years he has reportedly worked assiduously on his vocal technique, with the result that his problem areas seem to shift from one performance to another: On Sunday, the upper middle again sounded smaller than the rest of the voice.

This is a lot of quibbling to heap on a voice as fine as Licitra's. I offer it because his duet with Zajick was about as good as it's possible for opera to get. It demonstrated that Licitra should be the unrivaled star opera tenor of our day. If he is not, it is for reasons that all appear to be fixable, and therefore all the more frustrating to a listener.

The rest of the cast got the job done. Gordon Hawkins, as Alfio, was an appropriately menacing figure with a big growly voice, though, alas, very little sense of rhythm. Madeleine Gray was a warm Mamma Lucia (Turridu got a big laugh from the audience when, after challenging Alfio to mortal combat, he called for his mother); Leslie Mutchler, an alumna of the company's young artist program, had fun flirting with Turridu as his lover, Lola (Alfio's wife).

Riccardo Frizza, the conductor, was frustrating in his own way, failing to step up to the plate at moments that cried out for more orchestral support. He worked hard, with big gestures and lots of emphasis, but somehow that didn't get translated into the sound of the playing. As a result, the first half of the program was eminently skippable. A collection of opera overtures and excerpts -- the original, long version of Verdi's "Aida" Overture; Mascagni's "Le Maschere," with its old-fashioned Rossini-esque bounce; Puccini's "Le Villi," as well as his most famous non-vocal work, the early "Crisantemi" (Chrysanthemums) -- came across as a motley compilation assembled mainly as filler.

The basic equation of the afternoon was: Zajick onstage equals riveting opera; opera minus Zajick equals something considerably less riveting. Now that she and Washington have found their way to each other, opera-goers in this city can only hope that the relationship continues, and the sooner the better.

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