Michael Feinstein at Wolf Trap

"Gershwin, Broadway and Beyond" was the theme when Wolf Trap presented its 1999 gala and officially opened its season with a concert by singer and pianist Michael Feinstein Saturday night.

Not surprisingly, the Gershwin segment was sure-fire stuff, a weave of timeless melodies and delightful lyrics rendered with affection and verve by Feinstein and a polished sextet. Though his performances always brought to mind more expressive interpretations, Feinstein's enthusiasm for all things Gershwin was easily shared. Particularly enjoyable was an arrangement of "Embraceable You" that incorporated 15 Gershwin themes.

When the focus shifted to Broadway, Feinstein unveiled some amusing original material, including a 90-second abridgement of the entire score from "Oklahoma!" and an impression of what Ethel Merman might have sounded like as Evita. Always ready with a show biz anecdote, Feinstein recalled Irving Berlin's advice for fellow tunesmiths: "You better never write a bad song for Ethel, because if you do, you'll hear it." As for the "Beyond" section of the show, Feinstein's list of the century's worst songs, which included Berlin's "How Do You Do It Mabel on $20 a Week?," was nearly as entertaining as hearing the lost verses Johnny Mercer composed for "Too Marvelous for Words."

The opening set was performed by singer Linda Eder, looking and acting very pregnant, backed by a versatile band. Over the last decade, she's developed an appealing repertoire, a mixture of pop crowd-pleasers, including a spare but stirring arrangement of "Over the Rainbow," and a batch of stylistically diverse songs composed by her husband, Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn. Not nearly as glib as Feinstein, it was Eder who generated the emotional high points of the evening, singing in a compelling voice that sometimes evoked Barbra Streisand's power and range without seeming forced or overly derivative.

--Mike Joyce

National Orchestral Institute

The National Orchestral Institute opened its brief season at the University of Maryland Saturday night with fresh performances of three well-worn classics: Dvorak's "Carnival" Overture, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony and Mahler's Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"). There were no real surprises in this program, which left little room for them, but considerable satisfaction.

The NOI, established in 1987, is an intensive, month-long training program given each June for college-age musicians who aspire to orchestral careers. Participants, selected through hundreds of auditions across the United States, are given master classes, rehearsals, instruction on career development and an opportunity to participate in three concerts, with a different conductor each week, in the university's Tawes Auditorium. James DePreist, originally scheduled to conduct the opening concert, was kept away by illness; he was replaced by Andre Raphel Smith, assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who brought out the professional capabilities of his young musicians in a fluent performance.

Problems were few and momentary. Some stiffness in phrasing and tentative ensemble playing marked the beginning of the Dvorak, but it soon reached the proper lyricism. The Schubert was beautifully paced and accented, with notable strength in the bass strings and horns, The Mahler offers many opportunities for brief solos, and these challenges were taken up eagerly and usually with flawless technique, particularly by the wind players. The full orchestra came through with great power in the music's massive climaxes.

Smith's conducting gave an excellent sense of Mahler's kaleidoscopically shifting moods and the work's deep roots in folk song and dance as well as the composer's own songs. Conductors for the remaining concerts will be Marin Alsop on Saturday and Maximiano Valdes on June 26.

--Joseph McLellan

Capital City's 'Madama Butterfly'

The Capital City Opera, which staged Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" Saturday at the Olney Theatre Center, clearly fulfills its goal to "include the audience in the story" by conveying opera in an "immediate, visceral" way "to develop a wider audience for opera by making it affordable and accessible."

It was almost opera-in-the-round and it worked perfectly for Olney's small theater. The orchestra was assembled in two tiers on the stage (strings on the bottom level, winds on top) behind the singers, instead of the usual pit; the chamber-size chorus, divided to the left and right, sang from the audience. Conductor and co-founder Kim Allen Kluge entered unobtrusively down the main aisle and conducted from the first row of listeners.

The Japanese roles were performed by singers of Asian descent, which was quite fitting, but made the Italian dialogue sound more out of sync than usual. Benjamin Warschawski as Pinkerton, Gui-Ping Deng as Butterfly, James E. Kleyla as Sharpless, Joseph Hu as Goro, and Helen Yu as Suzuki were strong, well matched and believable.

The cramped performing space notwithstanding, the delicate costuming, a single set suggesting silk-screen fabric, and subtle lighting bolstered the aura of exoticism tempered by the verismo that suffuses the opera.

There were a few minor but fixable hitches. Ensemble among orchestra, singers and conductor occasionally slipped (some instrumentalists lacked clear sightlines to Kluge). And the sheer vocal power sometimes obscured the atmospheric harmonies tinged with non-European sound that reinforce the dramatic tension.

The production will be repeated tonight.

--Cecelia Porter

'H.M.S. Pinafore' in Rockville

Beneath its jokey exterior, Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" has a dark side that emerges with unusual impact in the Victorian Lyric Opera's production, now at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. It ridicules not only the caste system of Victorian England, but also the British navy, which was a key element in building and maintaining the Empire.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Joseph Porter (Pablo Zylberglait), and the captain of the Pinafore (Bill Melting) are portrayed (very effectively in this production) as incompetents more concerned with their social status than their official duties. The ship's dainty name contrasts with the machismo that flavored actual names of British war vessels ("Indomitable," "Victory") and the elaborate politeness Sir Jospeh requires of officers dealing with crews (all commands must include "if you please") contrasts sharply with the grim reality of the common seaman's life. The most striking performance in this production is that of A.G. Murphy as Dick Deadeye, the only character who is absolutely without illusions and always speaks the truth exactly as he sees it--and is despised for it.

Besides providing ammunition for W.S. Gilbert's wit, the subject had tragic implications. The "young" lovers (actually, the plot makes him old enough to be her father), kept apart by their social status, are given bel-canto-style music of intense pathos, which is performed by Dan Snyder (Ralph) and Kelly Lynn Quinn (Josephine) with a power that reflects their active careers beyond Gilbert and Sullivan.

The orchestral conducting of Catherine Huntress-Reeve and the stage direction of Pamela Leighton-Bilik give this production an unusual depth. There will be seven more performances through June 27.

--Joseph McLellan

CAPTION: Feinstein: Fun with Gershwin.