"The Saint of Bleecker Street," which began its run in the Eisenhower Theater strongly on Dec. 27, finished even more powerfully yesterday afternoon. Of the five productions seen so far in the Washington Opera's season, only "Salome," with Maria Ewing in the title role, has had a comparable impact.
By the final performance of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera about superstition, incestuous impulses and the harm that an ossified culture can inflict on nonconformists, the acting, by the members of the chorus as well as the soloists, had reached a high level of ensemble polish -- not exactly eclipsing the music but merging with it for maximum synergistic impact. Both principal roles in this performance were filled, as in several previous performances, by substitute singers.
The role of Annina (the saint) begins with a long and unusually challenging monologue, and soprano Gail Dobish took quite a while to warm up to it. At the beginning, her acting was more impressive than her singing, but once she hit her stride she gave a strong, well-integrated performance. Maryanne Telese (Annina on opening night) took the less demanding role of Carmela (which she had been alternating in with Dobish) easily in stride. Her performance was vivid, superbly controlled and well integrated into the total production.
In his performance as Annina's brother, Michele, tenor Don Bernardini surpassed the quite satisfactory interpretation given by Michael Myers earlier in the run. His voice, which he uses with precision and emotional power, had a bit more weight than that of Myers, and his characterization was considerably more convincing, his stage movements more smoothly coordinated and theatrically effective. "The Saint of Bleecker Street," like most of Menotti's work, has the potential of going beyond the category of opera into a kind of total theater. Thanks to a well-chosen and superbly directed cast, that happened in this production.