We came perilously close to losing the Washington Concert Opera two summers ago. The troupe, which has presented concert performances of rare and unusual operas here since 1986, had made an ambitious but prohibitively expensive move to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and suddenly realized it was going broke, with an annual deficit that had climbed to $200,000.
On Sunday night, with the company safely back in its original quarters, George Washington University's dowdy but simpatico Lisner Auditorium, it seemed a good time to give thanks for WCO's deliverance. Indeed, it has now joined the Vocal Arts Society and the Washington Performing Arts Society-sponsored Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes Piano Series as one of the few groups in town whose offerings should never be missed.
Not everything was perfect in Sunday's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "Luisa Miller": The production of any opera is always something of a crapshoot. Still, the WCO, under the direction of its artistic director and conductor, Antony Walker, did its best to fix the odds -- selecting a valuable work, rehearsing it with an eager chorus and orchestra, engaging singers whose voices would seem to fit their characters, and then stirring them all together.
For the most part, the effort paid off. "Luisa Miller" is relatively early Verdi -- postdating "Nabucco," "Macbeth," "Ernani" and a few others, but written before the amazing string of masterpieces that began with "Rigoletto." Still, it could be the work of no other composer. The great sections of "Luisa" combine the best qualities of Verdi's two most celebrated predecessors -- the rapt melodies of Vincenzo Bellini and the dizzyingly original musical invention of Gioacchino Rossini -- but add on a dramatic essentialism that was Verdi's own. And, in the finale to Act 1, there are even some moments that prefigure the grandeur of "Aida," which was still a quarter-century in the future.
The best singing of the night, all in all, came from baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Miller, Luisa's father. He is a fine and sensitive artist, a true singing actor who combined suave lyricism and sure dramatic vector with a voice rich in experience -- the proverbial "man of sorrows, acquainted with grief." It is not always an especially "pretty" voice, perhaps, but it inevitably touches the heart: We feel we know this person.
Tenor Richard Leech, who essayed the role of Rodolfo, made a central miscalculation -- he sang as though he were trying to reach the last row of the 4,000-seat, multi-tiered Metropolitan Opera House rather than merely to fill the more modest Lisner, which seats about 1,500. And so Leech was much too loud for most of the evening, and he sounded dangerously taxed and tired by the time he got around to Act 3. This was a pity, for his ardent emoting and clean, clarion sound would have suited Rodolfo pretty exactly, had they been taken in a size or two.
Soprano Indra Thomas, in the title role, was mostly a disappointment. At her worst, with her Novocain diction, uneven breath control and nervous, affected mannerisms, she seemed to be playing the stereotype of a diva playing Luisa Miller rather than Miller herself. She improved markedly in the last act and delivered a credible, straightforward and strongly sung account of the final duet with Leech, matching him nuance for nuance and decibel for decibel. Thomas has been much praised -- and her ringing high notes, once in place, are often exhilarating. But there is work to be done before she becomes an artist fully worthy of her obvious and abundant talents.
The supporting cast was a worthy one. Bass Matthew Lau, in the role of the aptly named Wurm, sang with an appropriately hard tone and wore his malevolence like an aura. Mezzo-soprano Kyle Engler piped prettily as Laura. Bass Daniel Sumegi did his best with the hopeless role of Count Walter: His voice is a handsome one, dark and sinuous, with an edge. And Gigi Mitchell-Velasco was a convincing Duchess Federica, alternately aching and rageful, with some luscious low notes.
Walker presided over the evening with assurance and intelligence: "Luisa Miller" has rarely seemed so all of a piece -- not merely a collection of arias and ensembles but a genuine music drama, with all that entails. The WCO has announced that its 2006 season will include a double bill of Puccini's "Il Tabarro" and Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" as well as Rossini's rarely heard "Tancredi," this last with Lawrence Brownlee, the spectacular coloratura tenor (and yes, there is such a thing). I hope the WCO is around for a long, long time (www.concertopera.org).