Opera Review: Anne Midgette on Washington Concert Opera's 'Il Giuramento'

Soprano lead Elizabeth Futral made for a winning Elaisa in the Washington Concert Opera's
Soprano lead Elizabeth Futral made for a winning Elaisa in the Washington Concert Opera's "Il Giuramento." (By Christian Steiner)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Washington Concert Opera offered a missing link on Sunday night. Saviero Mercadante represents the bridge between the bel canto opera of the first half of the 19th century and Verdi's powerful drama in the second half. And his operas are almost never done. So it was refreshing to hear "Il Giuramento," his most successful work -- particularly in a lively performance.

"Il Giuramento" broke new ground. Mercadante moved away from bel canto by putting stronger emphasis on the musical continuity, cutting down on florid vocal pyrotechnics and, most shockingly, eliminating the final aria for the soprano. This opera ends with a duet in which the tenor stabs her in a jealous rage and she stammers out a few phrases as she dies.

The result is a more unified dramatic whole that must have been really arresting in 1837, when the opera had its world premiere at La Scala. Antony Walker, WCO's fine music director, accordingly kept the music moving through most of the first act with such force that there was no time for applause.

"Il Giuramento" plunges immediately into the middle of its story and never really allows anyone time to figure out what's going on. It is, however, based on the same Victor Hugo play as "La Gioconda," Ponchielli's better-known potboiler written three-plus decades later, though so loosely that the soprano lead is a noble aristocrat in Mercadante's opera and a street singer in Ponchielli's. Still, if you know "Gioconda," you'll recognize the outlines of the story: soprano and mezzo-soprano love the same tenor; mezzo is married to someone else; mezzo is protected by a holy talisman from the soprano's mother; soprano saves the mezzo from her husband's vengeance by giving her a sleep drug that makes her appear dead, spiriting away her lifeless body, selflessly reuniting mezzo with tenor, and dying herself. And that's the simplified version. This is definitely one of those operas where it's better just to enjoy the music.

But the music is consistently engaging, particularly with Walker throwing his whole heart into the attempt to get the orchestra and chorus to produce the sounds he wants. What it lacks are really terrific tunes. "Il Giuramento's" melodies are of the evanescent variety, light as meringue and melting away as quickly. It's the orchestration and the ensembles that make a real case for this work: The whole is definitely greater than its parts.

This could be applied to Sunday's singers, too: There were no absolute standouts and everyone did a pretty good job. The young tenor James Valenti evoked the Cary Grant of the 1930s -- that is, in his gangly, coltish period. Valenti has the looks, and a fine voice, but he does not yet fully own either; the top notes in particular were a little shy, though they were certainly there. Elizabeth Futral, already seen as Washington National Opera's "Traviata" this season, has a pretty, light voice without much lower register, but she won me over as Elaisa, the soprano lead, with canny singing that came through at all the right moments. As Bianca, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó opened with impressive vocal presence that she wasn't able to sustain, in part because the role really calls for some down-and-dirty chest voice. Donnie Ray Albert was gruffly melodious as Bianca's nasty husband, Manfredo.

"Il Giuramento," though perhaps not an undiscovered masterpiece, is certainly a lot of fun to hear, especially for anyone who loves 19th-century Italian opera. Unfortunately, WCO, forced to look to ticket sales, is returning to more familiar ground next season, with "Cenerentola" and "Faust."

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