The National Symphony Orchestra, assisted by a host of vocal soloists and the Oratorio Society of Washington, gave a massive reading of a massive work for its season finale last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Before moving to Wolf Trap for the summer series, Mstislav Rostropovich and the NSO tackled Rimsky-Korsakov's daring and opulent "The Golden Cockerel" (well known through the suite "Le Coq d'Or"), the composer's last and perhaps greatest opera.
At least in principle, the NSO's concert presentation -- without costumes and scenery -- was much like the first U.S. production at the Metropolitan Opera House. Owing to the complexities of the music and action, that 1918 version saved the singers strictly for singing, and had the ballet troupe carry out the movements of the fantastic tale onstage.
The difficulties of the vocal lines were met admirably by soprano Elena Ustinova as the queen, bass Piotr Nowacki singing the hefty role of King Dodon and tenor Noel Espiritu Velasco as the astrologer. Making her U.S. debut, Ustinova projected a clean, colorful sound and displayed an impressive vocal range. In the exotic hymn to the sun in Act 2, she skillfully manipulated the aria's slippery chromatics and eerie modulations, all with a good sense of drama.
Nowacki's deep, rich voice was effectively powerful. The chorus offered ample support, especially in the closing act, and managed the Russian text well.
In bringing out Rimsky's brilliant orchestration, the NSO showed to good advantage in the openings of Acts 2 and 3. The musicians provided muscle where needed and easily followed Rostropovich's sure direction. The woodwinds' smooth and lyrical work throughout the evening made for particularly enjoyable listening.