There are three possible reasons why you might -- repeat, might -- want to attend the Washington National Opera's current production of Verdi's "Il Trovatore," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. They are (a) the smart, sure, sensitive and well-paced conducting of Music Director Heinz Fricke; (b) the majesty and dignity of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves's portrayal of Azucena; (c) Verdi's rich, fierce, tuneful score, which survives somehow, battered but intact, to fight another day.
Aside from that, the production is a thoroughgoing horror, and Saturday night in particular provided one of the worst performances of any opera I've ever seen. Graves aside, the singers strove mightily to pull themselves up onto the lowest rungs of mediocrity (were we really at the Kennedy Center?). The staging, by director Stephen Lawless, is almost unrelievedly dreary -- dark and dingy in the extreme, enlivened every now and then by flames shooting from the floor and by clanking, ill-choreographed swordfights that might have been lifted from a high school staging of "Romeo and Juliet." I pity the person who sees this "Trovatore" as his or her first opera: Dumb, strained, pompous, old-fashioned and supremely illogical, it will serve to confirm every negative (and usually misleading) stereotype about the genre.
Where did the Washington Opera find these singers, anyway? And couldn't somebody have made a call to the Juilliard School or Peabody Conservatory or even our own Levine School to book some talented students and upgrade? It may seem cruel and unusual punishment to list the transgressors, but the rules of journalism demand an accounting: bass Mikhail Kazakov was Ferrando (raw, parched and loud), tenor Mikhail Davidoff was Manrico (pinched, blatant, crude and loud), and baritone Carlos Archuleta was Count di Luna (woolly, indistinct, colorless and -- a small favor -- somewhat less loud).
Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, who sang Leonora, was better than that -- indeed, her rendition of "D'amor sull'ali rosee" was surprisingly lyrical and effective. But most of the time she sounded constrained and insecure as she wandered anxiously about the stage. The impresario Matthew Epstein has called Leonora one of the most difficult roles to cast with our current crop of singers, divorced as most of them are from the classic Italian tradition. It would be good to hear Stoyanova in something more fully suited to her gifts.
There was palpable relief when Graves took the stage ("At last!" one was tempted to shout, "a professional!") And, from the ranting malediction of "Stride la vampa!" through a sweetly direct and achingly nostalgic "Ai nostri monti," she dominated every scene she was in and did much to make Azucena a poignant human figure rather than just another wild-eyed, "double, double toil and trouble" stereotype. Four supporting singers -- mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler, tenors Matthew Ryan Wolff and Tim Augustin, and baritone Donald Schramm -- fulfilled their duties capably, and the Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus sounded eager and well drilled by Fricke.
Harsh reviews often can generate anguished responses. And, yes, I am sure that the singers were doing their best, but the stark fact remains that their best was nowhere near good enough, not for Verdi, not for the Kennedy Center, not at prices that rise to $290 per seat. Right now, our Washington National Opera, the leading such company in the capital city of the United States of America, is offering a production that wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- play in Peoria.
Il Trovatore will be repeated Wednesday, Saturday and Nov. 2, 5, 8, 11 and 13. Call 202-295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.