Youth Reigns Supreme in 'King'

Liam Bonner sings the role of Belfiore and Tamara Wilson is the love-struck Marchesa in Wolf Trap Opera's staging of Verdi's
Liam Bonner sings the role of Belfiore and Tamara Wilson is the love-struck Marchesa in Wolf Trap Opera's staging of Verdi's "King for a Day." (Carol Pratt)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

In the past couple of decades, the American opera world has developed a set career path for aspiring young singers. After artists have moved through conservatory, apprentice programs, and young-artist programs with companies around the country, the Wolf Trap Opera Company offers a kind of finishing school to a select handful as they prepare to launch themselves out into the cold, cruel world.

In general, the products of this system can have a certain sameness: overly ambitious productions of young, not-quite-ready artists, performing (or trying to) by the book, often in unusual repertory designed to attract the attention of critics. All the more reason to hail Wolf Trap. "King for a Day," the early Verdi opera that opened the company's season on Friday night, is a rare exception to the rule not only of most opera with young singers, but most opera, period: a production that gets it exactly right.

This is how you want to hear young performers. This "King" offers a collection of exciting talent, some more polished than others but all well cast so that they are not straining to sing roles slightly too big for them, and directed with so much intelligence that the piece is actually funny (it was Verdi's first, and nearly last, attempt at comedy) without lapsing into the usual opera-buffa shtick.

Conventional wisdom has it that "King for a Day" ("Un Giorno di Regno") is, as an opera, a failure. Fortunately Wolf Trap Opera seems to buck conventional wisdom on every front. Perhaps it was simply Kristine McIntyre's outstanding production that made the first act, in particular, seem perfectly viable onstage. (The second acts of Italian comic operas have a way of falling off; Rossini is as susceptible as Verdi.) McIntyre has the knack of making scenes come alive by working with each performer individually, starting with the chorus, which was here not merely a faceless crowd but a group of distinct characters -- fittingly enough, since it consisted not of choristers but of young soloists-in-training. She had plenty of support from the pit, where Brian Garman led the orchestra with a verve and sparkle that made the piece vivid rather than merely dutiful.

Early Verdi is far too often cast with light voices in the mistaken belief that this is the right thing to do because the composer was writing for bel canto singers. Wolf Trap also bucked convention in this regard, particularly by casting Marjorie Owens in the ingenue role of Giulietta. Owens is a product of not one but two of the country's leading opera studios (in Houston and Chicago); her name has been mentioned to me in the past as an example of the system's increasing awareness that singers with large voices sometimes take longer to get stage-ready than singers with smaller ones. It was a pleasure to find that the system was right: Owens indeed has a large, healthy, beautiful voice (she will sing the company's Ariadne later this summer), and made her singing sound easy and fun as she poured out early Verdi melodies with pathos or Rossinian esprit, as called for, by turns.

She was matched by Tamara Wilson in the even larger role of the competent Marchesa, a soprano with a sound slightly thinner and tauter, finished off with secure, stratospheric top notes. The Marchesa is in love with Belfiore (Liam Bonner, a fine, smooth baritone), who in order to protect the King of Poland is masquerading as him for a day, and taking the opportunity to try to iron out Giulietta's romantic affairs: Giulietta's father, the Baron, wants her to marry a wealthy old nobleman, but she wants to marry his handsome nephew Edoardo. As Edoardo, Beau Gibson was a diamond in the rough, his voice still a work in progress but with lots of promise and a high C that he held for a long time, with great satisfaction if not impeccable beauty.

Hearing young singers in an actual production is a reminder of how incomplete a picture one can get from auditions; Ryan McKinny, a bass, failed to impress me at last year's Metropolitan Opera National Council finals, but was very good here as the blustering Baron.

As for the opera: Vintage Verdi it is not, but it proved to be very respectable early Verdi, eager to emulate Rossini but breaking out time and again in romantic arias expressing a bit more than mere comic tribulations. Then again, a good cast, good production and good conductor have a way of making a convincing case for any work. At Wolf Trap, it all added up to a perfectly delightful evening. There is one more performance, on Tuesday night: Opera lovers will find it worth the trip.

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