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Performing Arts: Kelli O'Hara lights up the Kennedy Center

-- Joan Reinthaler

Pianist Ran Dank

Israeli-born, Juilliard-trained pianist Ran Dank made a splashy Washington debut on Saturday afternoon, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The originally announced program was almost identical to what he played when he won the Young Concert Artists auditions in New York last year. Instead, Dank returned to some of his choices for the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, where he finished as a semifinalist, one of several jury decisions to be criticized that year.

Dank played with impeccable technical surety, a point made by a boisterous performance of Liszt's "RĂ©miniscences de Norma" transcription, a piece hardly worth the trouble of busting one's chops to play it. Miles of gauzy scales, dizzying double octaves, and fluttering repeated-note chords -- Dank conquered them all, rendering some of Bellini's vocal flourishes with a bravura more pianistic than bel canto. Schumann's Piano Sonata No. 3 required almost as much technical pizazz but was more profound, with Dank mastering the work's shifting moods -- chirping dotted rhythms, moments of rhapsody, explosive force and triumphant exultation.

Opening with Pierre Boulez's "Douze Notations" was a gutsy move at the Van Cliburn Competition, and it was just as disarming here. Dank switched gears quickly between these short, often acerbic pieces, and his ability to apply weight with his hands to create opulent voicing details created colors that ran from velvety and murmuring to muted and arid. There were many admirable ideas in his performance of Beethoven's Sonata in E-flat (Op. 27, No. 1), especially in realizing the composer's orchestral conception of the piano, but its Adagio movement especially revealed an area where growth is still needed -- how to weave an expressive phrase together at a slow tempo.

-- Charles T. Downey

Virginia Opera Company

Even with one of its orchestra's buses broken down en route, the Virginia Opera Company's production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" opened its two-performance run at the George Mason University Center for the Arts almost on time Friday. The stranded strings and low winds arrived by Act 2 but in the meantime, conductor Peter Mark and his reduced forces offered a clarity of texture and prominence of inner voices that almost made up for the loss of voluptuousness that the full group mustered.

Vocally this is a fine and, in places, an outstanding production. In soprano Sang-Eun Lee, the company found a Gilda who could place every note with exquisite accuracy while projecting a full palette of innocent haplessness, filial devotion and passion. Nothing she did sounded forced, and she used her splendid vocal equipment subtly and with artistic restraint. Fikile Mvinjelwa, a fine baritone from South Africa, had the chops to handle the score with ease but never sounded all that enthralled by the debauchery around him or even that overwrought by the abduction of Gilda, his daughter. Aurelio Dominguez was a fresh if occasionally pinched-sounding Duke and Nathan Stark, a resonant and commanding bass, was a nicely menacing Sparafucile, the assassin.

Dramatically, however, it was a strangely static and low-energy performance, reminiscent of the stand-and-deliver days of yore. The only dramatic sparks came from Lee, whose Gilda was captivating. But Dominguez never really managed a convincing swagger, and much of the pathos just seemed to bounce off Mvinjelwa, who made minimal emotional contact with the people around him.

Strangest of all, however, was a decision that director Marc Astafan made because of his worry that Mvinjelwa's Rigoletto might look too young to be Gilda's father. (Mvinjelwa doesn't look young at all. He looks middle-aged.) "We have a young man (Mvinjelwa) playing Rigoletto," Astafan wrote in the program notes, "so that's where I start." Astafan conjured up "a young man thrown into fatherhood at a very young age." And so, as the overture eased the audience into the coming drama, the curtain opened momentarily on a childbirth scene, with a dying mother, and the baby Gilda handed to daddy Rigoletto. That certainly broke whatever spell the music was casting.

The set, with its revolving cylindrical structure, was effective and efficient, and the stock 16th century costumes looked good.

-- Joan Reinthaler

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