By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; C10
Opera companies have a problem. To get the attention of critics, they need to mount new work, explore less-known repertory, engage big stars. But to cement the loyalty of their subscribers, they need to present bread-and-butter operas, the perennial staples of the repertory. Those staples, furthermore, tend to be what they're best at doing.
Witness the Washington National Opera's spring season. The high-profile entries are the monumental American opera "Porgy and Bess" (just past) and the upcoming "Hamlet," a less-known showpiece for a coloratura soprano (Diana Damrau, the rising German, debuts). Then there's "The Marriage of Figaro," the staple, which opened Saturday night.
No fireworks for "Figaro." Harry Silverstein's production was rather conservative, and not even new (it came from the Houston Grand Opera); the singers weren't superstars; the opera is one of the most-produced in the repertory. Yet this "Figaro" may be one of the season's most satisfying productions, not because it was the greatest "Figaro" the world has heard, but because it did exactly what it set out to do: provide a perfectly fine evening at the opera.
Canny casting was part of the evening's success. Neither Teddy Tahu Rhodes nor Ildar Abdrazakov yet has the stature of a Placido Domingo or Renée Fleming, but both are well known in the field and have sung a lot in Washington, and Abdrazakov, in particular, is getting more and more high-profile roles (he just sang the title role of the Metropolitan Opera's new "Attila").
If you had to pick the most prominent singer onstage Saturday night, however, Rhodes (as the Count) would have been the one you fingered: He oozed star quality. Rhodes, as famous for his looks as for his voice, played the Count as a kind of Don Giovanni manqué, convincing in his desire to bed every woman in sight; and his voice had a more pronounced force-of-nature aspect than I'd heard from him in the past (at least since he beguiled me as Ned Keene in the Met's "Peter Grimes"). He did audibly tire after the intermission, but I was left impressed by the volume of his sound and the depiction of the character.
Abdrazakov, as Figaro (the Count's valet), sang technically better than Rhodes but with less flair: appropriate, perhaps, to his character's servile status, but surprising in a singer with such a burgeoning profile. I have seen other Count-Figaro pairings where the tension between the two singers becomes a driving force in the drama; Abdrazakov, though, was simply obedient to the role, and filled its demands very well.
A tiny quibble with his singing is that it could have used a little more punch in some places where he tended to smooth over lines, and even flatten them (in, for example, his brooding aria "Se vuol baillare," threatening to beat the Count at his own game). Patrick Fournillier's conducting, however, was a factor here. Fournillier, a high-profile conductor in his WNO debut, favored fast, fluid tempos that not everyone in the orchestra, or onstage, could keep up with. The result was a zippy and appealing reading with a lot of coordination problems between the stage and the pit.
The women were less individually strong. All three of the leads -- Susanna, the Countess and the irrepressible teenage page boy Cherubino -- had light, high-lying voices, and all three tended to the same kind of perky overacting.
The leader among them was Veronica Cangemi, making her WNO debut in the deceptive role of Susanna, Figaro's bride, whom the Count is eager to sleep with -- deceptive because, though it only has one aria and calls for a relatively light voice, it's among the longest in opera. Cangemi paced herself wisely, so that she was still able to deliver on her Act 4 aria, and brought a range of color to her sound, which initially seemed fluttery but revealed more interesting facets.
As the Countess, Virginia Tola offered a rather bland soprano and an uneven performance: Her opening "Porgi amor" was choppily phrased and not very good, but she managed a far more successful "Dove sono." Michèle Losier was an aggressively charming Cherubino. As Barbarina, the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Emily Albrink sounded ready to take her place on their level.
Memorable singers, though, go beyond what is merely required of them in their roles, and on Saturday, Victoria Livengood was unquestionably memorable. Her Marcellina looked and sounded a bit like a man in drag, and her voice could peel paint off the walls, but it made for a striking, rounded portrayal of a comic character. There may have been people who didn't like it, but I bet there were few who failed to notice it.
The Marriage of Figaro
will be presented in the Kennedy Center Opera April 26, 27, 29 and May 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7.