By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; C03
Opera Lafayette celebrated its 15th anniversary on Monday night with a gesture that, before the fact, seemed almost quixotic. The company, which usually performs in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater -- seating about 500 -- rented out the Concert Hall, which holds more than 2,000 people, for a performance of Gluck's "Armide." In honor of its anniversary, the group charged $15 a ticket, a quarter of what it regularly charges.
And it sold out the Concert Hall. Happy Birthday, Opera Lafayette.
"I said, 'If we sell 1,000 tickets, I will be happy,' " said Yoko Arthur, the president of the company. " 'If we sell 1,500, I will be ecstatic.' " Instead, thanks to an aggressive grass-roots campaign and despite the absence of print advertising ("we don't have a budget"), the company sold 2,100 tickets, filling the hall to the upper balconies. There was even an ad on Craigslist, offering $25 for a ticket.
It was quite wonderful to see the sense of accomplishment that filled the Concert Hall as a result. Not everyone who had a ticket showed up (there were empty seats here and there). Not everyone who came may have been fully prepared for the actual experience of three hours of French opera. Not everyone stayed past the intermission. But a lot of enthusiasm was in evidence, and it was well-deserved: Opera Lafayette gave tremendous bang for the buck.
The company's founder and conductor, Ryan Brown, realized the composer's goal of dramatic immediacy of expression without trying to translate that into some sort of contemporary equivalent, or updating, for his audience. There was a grace and ease to his phrasing, and a vividness to the playing of his small ensemble, that freed the opera from the ponderous stasis that so often attends even the most well-meaning revivals of 18th-century opera (such as the Metropolitan Opera's stately "Iphigenie en Tauride," also by Gluck, in 2007).
Opera Lafayette presented "Armide" in 2007 in conjunction with the University of Maryland in a production directed by Leon Major. Not having seen the 2007 staging, I can't compare, but this semi-concert presentation, studded with dance interlays from the New York Baroque Dance Company (a frequent Opera Lafayette collaborator, resplendent in period costume) was excellent at conveying the spirit of the opera and showing the work's dramatic continuity. And it revealed the way that the dance was conceived as a part of the action, or the way that some moments (the Act I finale, a rapid-paced ensemble) might have influenced Mozart.
Opera Lafayette has developed a core of regular singers over the years, and on Monday it brought most of them to a stage so big that their singing sounded a little smaller than usual. The company fielded not one but two good tenors, neither with the nasal cast that so often afflicts singers in French (and that affected the baritone William Sharp). William Burden, who has perhaps the biggest career of any of the regulars, sounded downright heroic among the rest, singing with the light strength of aluminum, as Renaud, and Robert Getchell offered the watercolor tones of good French singing in the smaller roles of Artémidore and one of Renaud's henchmen.
As La Haine (Hate), whom Armide invokes to try to save her from the perils of loving her enemy Renaud, Stephanie Houtzeel didn't quite achieve the star turn she appeared ready to take, in part because of her lack of a firm lower register, but she showed an attractive warmth. Darren Perry was robust, if a little uneven, in two smaller roles.
Dominique Labelle had the toughest assignment in taking on the heroine, who is faced with the indecision and corresponding musical mood swings of a strong woman: from "no man is good enough for me" to "how can I love him without losing myself," often in dramatic monologues rather than set-piece arias. Labelle's jewel-like voice couldn't always sustain the pressure of the big music in the big space, but she achieved some beautiful moments, through to the uncharacteristically unhappy ending when the woman is, in effect, punished for her strength by being abandoned.
The company is taking "Armide" on the road; on Wednesday, it will present the opera at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. It has managed to sell out that performance, as well, in part by sending volunteers to New York by bus to hand out fliers to people attending the movie-theater broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's "Carmen." Enterprise will get you far, and low ticket prices help -- but you have to be able to deliver a good performance. Opera Lafayette showed that it can carry through on all parts of the equation.