French grand opera is the source of many of our opera stereotypes: an overscaled entertainment larded with unlikely plot twists and melodramatic situations: oaths of vengeance, stark contrasts of evil and purity and protracted death scenes.
Yet stereotypes are so often just layers of lazy thinking about real precedents. There are reasons why operas such as Jules Massenet's "Le Cid" held the stage and captured the 19th-century imagination. And the production of "Le Cid" presented by the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Saturday night will help skeptical listeners understand the indiscreet charms of this art form.
The Washington Opera's spectacular production of this 1885 work is a visually exhilarating vehicle in which to display the voice of the first and best of the Three Tenors, and the company's artistic director, Placido Domingo. It is also a role that any tenor with courage and ambition would crave.
This is, however, much more than a star turn for Domingo. The role of Chimene, El Cid's great love, demands a soprano with equal vocal heft and perhaps even greater dramatic nuance than the title character. And the score is worthy in its own right, seething with testosterone, propelled by pervasive lilting triple-meter rhythms, dramatic brass writing and an effortless melody that reminds one of Puccini (or several of Massenet's other, better known works). Equally astonishing is Massenet's theatrical mastery. He weaves a matrix of conflicting ethical obligations--to country, to family, to love--that play out in tight, swiftly moving scenes (abetted by cuts in the original score).
So why hasn't "Le Cid" been performed in this country since 1902? The winds of musical fashion changed in the early part of the 20th century, and they never really blew back (except in Hollywood). Opera diversified, and the dominance of Paris dwindled, except for its avant-garde. Bourgeois operatic tastes turned inward, toward more psychologically intricate librettos and away from spectacle and the geometric precision of grand opera. And grand opera was, and is, terribly expensive.
Perhaps it's best not to know the price tag on the Washington Opera's staging, supported by a grant from America Online co-founder James Kimsey. The sets and costumes (designed by director Hugo de Ana) are a riot of red and crimson, like late afternoon sun shining through a bottle of dark port. The stage layout is sensible but compelling--a set of ascending stairs running deep upstage, sometimes topped by a very impressive squadron of cavalry in full armor. Crosses, gates and moving side panels delineate different scenes. De Ana uses his very large chorus, supplemented by athletic supernumeraries, with precision: They move quickly, creating striking tableaux that bristle with bellicose energy. This is the sort of production that New York's Metropolitan Opera might offer to notoriously over-the-top director Franco Zeffirelli as a cautionary example: Produce something this sumptuous, then stop already.
The scale of the sets is not just a matter of money and good taste but essential to the dramatic success of the work. In grand opera, the larger world of God, country and clan is a necessary and driving dramatic element. "Le Cid" is a brisk study in how those forces can instantly transmute love into rage, duty into betrayal, righteous violence into murder. Massenet reflects this musically, with massive blocks of sound from the chorus and orchestra covered with the traceries of the wide-ranging vocal lines. The soloists inscribe personal love and pain on something hard and monumental.
Most effective at conveying the volatility created in this world of charged, emotional force fields was soprano Elisabete Matos as Chimene. Her singing was not always pitch perfect, but this became insignificant as the sheer forcefulness and inexhaustibility of her voice emerged through the evening. While Domingo's Rodrigue inhabits the relatively limited world of masculine poses, Chimene is the central axis of the evening, exacerbating the problems before finally resolving them. Matos brought real expectancy to each excruciating moment of indecisiveness, without seeming merely mercurial.
Domingo's challenges were more musical than dramatic, though he is, for a tenor schooled in the great heroic roles, an astute master of the telling gesture. This production divides the four-act opera into two large acts, and during much of the first half of the evening Domingo must sing against the massed forces of the musicians and chorus. He was suffering the remnants of a cold on Saturday, and his voice fluctuated uncomfortably between attempts at large heroic sounds and a more comfortable, intentionally pushed lyric tone. He came into his own later in the evening, in his extended farewell scene with Chimene (some of the opera's most ecstatic and wrenching moments) and in the opera's best known tenor aria, "O souverain, o juge, o pere."
Bass Hao Jiang Tian undertook the third, Olympian-scale role, that of Rodrigue's father, an old war hero on the wane. Tian produced the most lyrically sculpted sounds of the opera's three bass and baritone leads. Soprano Angela Turner Wilson, who sang the Infanta, was a significant presence, despite her character's dramatic irrelevance.
Much of the credit for the evening goes to the orchestra, which played voluptuously under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume. The young French conductor treated the score symphonically, underscoring its continuities, connections and the reprise of melodic material. It was a sweeping performance that pushed the singers (at times rather strenuously) to exciting heights. It left one impressed with Massenet's orchestration and sense of pageantry, which would put many a latter-day propagandist to shame. "Le Cid," which was co-produced with the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville, will be repeated Thursday, Sunday and Nov. 10, 13, 16, 19 and 22.
CAPTION: In Massenet's heroic 1885 work, a showcase for Washington Opera Artistic Director Placido Domingo.
CAPTION: Elisabete Matos and Placido Domingo in "Le Cid."