Washington National Opera's 'Petite Messe Solennelle' Is Something of a Mess

From left, Washington National Opera's Kate Aldrich, Sabina Cvilak and conductor Plácido Domingo with guest soloist Andrea Bocelli.
From left, Washington National Opera's Kate Aldrich, Sabina Cvilak and conductor Plácido Domingo with guest soloist Andrea Bocelli. (By Karin Cooper -- Washington National Opera)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008

About two-thirds of the way through Rossini's "Petite Messe Solennelle," there is a "Preludio religioso" that stops the action with a long, gentle meditation for solo organ. Onstage Friday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the Washington National Opera performed the work, it seemed a long hiatus indeed: Plácido Domingo was not conducting; Andrea Bocelli and the other soloists were not singing; and the whole chorus and orchestra sat in suspended animation while this simple little tune wafted over them.

Then, when the chorus came in immediately after this solo, it was with such beauty and sensitivity that it sounded as if the organ (played by David Lang), and the meditation, had refocused the evening and reminded everyone how to make music. And this was a lucky thing, for the first hour or so of the performance amounted to artistic bankruptcy.

Washington's signal strength, in terms of classical music, is that it is a great chorus town. It has a striking number of amateur and semiprofessional choruses, all offering full seasons of challenging repertory. So it takes chutzpah for the Washington National Opera to produce a choral work that sounded, for much of the evening, as if everyone were simply struggling to get through it. It is hard to believe that with two world-famous soloists on stage, Domingo and Bocelli, the first section of the performance, in particular, could appear so egregiously third-rate.

The point of presenting Bocelli is not to please opera fans, of course, but rather to draw Bocelli fans into appreciation of the standard operatic repertory. But if you want to get people excited about music, you have to offer them something exciting. My standard answer to people who want to go to an opera for the first time, but who say they won't be able to tell if the singing is good, is that anybody can tell the difference between a thrilling performance and one that isn't.

Friday's performance, though, wasn't thrilling at all. To judge from the applause, there were Bocelli fans on hand. There was very little onstage, however, to alleviate the sense that any opera newbies had sat through something rather tedious for the sake of the five minutes of solo singing by their star.

There is a cynicism to putting on this kind of thing and taking people's money for it; and an arrogance to thinking that it is good enough for prime time, simply because your beloved artistic director is leading the forces. Domingo is a wonderful artist, and he conducts with a great deal of energy, but actually shaping a piece is still beyond him: He offers individual episodes, with little sense of how to mold them or of how one relates to another. His gestures are emphatic but unclear; most of the ensemble entrances were a mess. The chorus, for its part, sounded reedy and strained -- at least until it found its way to that beautiful a cappella "Sanctus" after the organ solo, when it made a far better case for itself as a professional chorus.

Apart from Bocelli, the other three soloists were young, willing singers from the company's most recent productions: Sabina Cvilak, the Micaëla in "Carmen"; Alexander Vinogradov, the Escamillo; and Kate Aldrich, who sang Maffio in "Lucrezia Borgia." Aldrich offered the strongest profile with an excellent final "Agnus Dei," although overall, the part appeared to sit a little low in her gingerbread-colored voice.

Her first duet with Cvilak, "Qui tollis peccata mundi," represented a valiant effort to get the evening on track. Cvilak sang with a larger, warmer sound than her lyric voice indicated she had in her, and a nascent grasp of the music that could have been turned into something even better with help from a different conductor. Vinogradov showed that he is really a bass, not a baritone; he was a lot darker than he was as Escamillo, although he sounded a little pushed in places.

Then there was Bocelli. No one expects me to have liked Bocelli, since opera lovers generally don't. I will say only that his recordings, which I sometimes play back-to-back with Pavarotti's to illustrate to people what a lack of breath support sounds like, did not prepare me for hearing him live. Forget about the voice's lack of size, forget about the lack of breath support -- where was the melting, musical quality that has won him such a huge following on such CDs as "Romanza," "Amore," "Sogno"?

Instead, Bocelli delivered the "Domine Deus," his only solo, in a barky, dry shout at a uniform level of loudness, the top notes audibly strained. Not until the "Et resurrexit," about an hour into the evening, did he sing a phrase with the burnished, ringing quality that comes across on his best recordings. For this listener, it was too little, too late.

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