The Washington Opera's vital signs seemed normal on Saturday night after the company's life had been threatened by the recent strike of the musicians of the Kennedy Center Opera House orchestra.
The production of Mozart's "Abduction From the Seraglio" to use the language in which the opera was sung, opened on schedule, though it had been canceled only 10 days before. The fortunate ending of the strike on the day of the cancellation gave the company management just enough time to restore everything and everyone - with the exception of stage director Nathaniel Merrill of the Metropolitan Opera, whose place was taken by David Alden.
Conductor Reinhard Peters led a performance full of fine spirit, reminding some in the audience of the style in which the opera was given 21 years ago when it served to inaugurate the Opera Society of Washington's illustrious history. The orchestra played with good style and generally fine tone, as if to indicate that it was happy to be back at work where it has long resided.
Mozart's version of the Turkish-accented story was sung in the English translation of Ruth and Thomas Martin, with those emendations that singers regularly make according to their own vocal preferences. Its familiar insipities were as unwelcome as its felicities were welcome, especially when the men were singing - the words were usually easily understood.
The unit set looked handsome against the skilled lighting of Gilbert Hemsley, as did fine costumes for which no program credit was assigned. "The Abduction" makes real difficulties for the stage director during several of the longer orchestral introductions Mozart wrote before some of its finest arias. Whether Merrill had laid out the final action for these or Alden was responsible, the generally admirable action was absurdly interrupted during one of the most critical moments of the opera.
Just before Constanze's dramatic "Martern aller Arten," in which she defies the Pasha, his harem of eight wives, all clothed and veiled in white, was brought on stage in a furtive parade to cringe there during the first half of the aria. It was enough to threaten the entire effect of the moment's superb singing and acting by Ashley Putnam as Constanze and Jean-Pierre Stewart in the speaking role of the Pasha Selim.
Putnam, however, pacing herself well through the long, taxing scene, and thanks to her notable vocal and dramatic gifts, helped to draw away from the ludicrous background. Her voice is ideal for the part, except for the very top, a region she should travel with great care and probably, before long, avoid altogether. Most of her agility went well, though she has to reduce her volume markedly to handle it smoothly. But she is a greatly talented star, handsome, stylish, and a pleasure to hear.
How she could, as Constanza, have preferred the insipid posturings of William McDonald as Belmonte to the virile charisma of Stewart's Pasha is one of opera's mysteries. In voice and appearance, Stewart made the role the finest in memory, totally appealing and convincing.
Claudette Peterson was an ideal Blonde, taking on her highest phrases with ease and delight and acting with such controlled gusto that she raised visions of equally fine Despinas and many others. Her work with James Hoback made an excellent balance for the mooning around of the Constanze-Belmonet pair.
Hoback, too, is a pleasure, combining a fine voice for the light comedy with a decided flair for action that never crossed the line into pure. Whether addressing Osmin, Belmonte, Constanze, or Blonde, he always found the right touch. And his solo singing had vocal and musical style.
The fat juicy part in the opera is that of the big, florid Osmin, the bossy eunuch gardener. It is a role for which Noel Mangin is justly famous. His voice roared around as amusingly as his inflated belly. He got every one of the laughs he openly pursued.
William McDonald's light lyric tenor simply does not have the necessary power for Belmonte. Not only should there be far more contrast between the two tenors, but Belmonte's arias have a touch of the heroic in them, while McDonald's voice actually sounds smaller than it did the last time he sang here, lessening the impact of the role both in solo and ensemble passages.
The opera will be repeated Tuesday and Friday nights and Sunday afternoon.