Baltimore Opera

The Baltimore Opera has put together a production of Vincenzo Bellini's "La Sonnambula" ("The Sleepwalker") that succeeds in spite of its confusing and distracting staging. Friday evening at the Lyric Opera House, the main cast turned in beautifully sung and acted performances, while the orchestra and chorus provided graceful accompaniments. With this strong musical and dramatic foundation, the staging was more of an irritant than a central threat to the evening.

Soprano Valeria Esposito immersed herself fully in the central role of Amina, the sleepwalking damsel whose nocturnal perambulations endanger her engagement to her jealous fiance, Elvino. Esposito's voice maintained its power, focus and purity across the registers, especially in the the stratospheric notes that constantly arise in this 1831 bel canto opera. The promising young American tenor Gregory Kunde was an ardent if benighted Elvino, displaying a well-supported, golden voice that occasionally edged toward the small side. Bass Elia Todisco brought stentorian force to the part of Count Rodolfo, while soprano Penny Shumate was a fine Lisa, the scheming innkeeper. Mezzo-soprano Angela Horn and baritone Brendan Cooke also made passionate contributions.

It was unfortunate that Italian director Federico Tiezzi's staging often contradicted the unfolding drama. You felt that the setting was anywhere but the called-for Alpine village, and creaking stage floorboards and a noisy machine-lowered bridge created further distractions. Thankfully, conductor Steven White kept everything on track, continually eliciting colorful music and artistry.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Sumptuous colors flowed from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening at Strathmore Hall. The gifted Canadian conductor Kwame Ryan led the ensemble in two glowing early 20th-century works inspired by Charles Perrault's fairy tale collection "Tales of Mother Goose" that highlighted the orchestra's elegance, refinement and power.

The evening's centerpiece was a rare concert performance of Bela Bartok's opera "Bluebeard's Castle," Op. 11, a loose adaptation of the gloomy tale about the nobleman who entices beautiful women into his castle to kill them. Caught up in the expressionist and symbolist aesthetics of the early 1900s, Bartok adapted the story into a compact two-character, one-act opera in Hungarian that explores inner conflict and the psychology of suffering.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Anita Krause doled out her rich and flexible tone in the part of Judith. Krause's gorgeously dusky and plaintive approach worked well with her Bluebeard, the Hungarian baritone Peter Fried. As Judith learns her fate, unlocking the castle doors that reveal aspects of Bluebeard's torturous past, Krause's sound shifted from gleaming wonder to grim horror. Fried sensitively portrayed a tormented soul, showing an idiomatic feel for pacing and delivery.

Ryan teased out a somber palette of musical colors to accompany the taut drama. Melancholic strings, earthy woodwinds and burnished brass conjured up darkly opulent textures that had shades of Debussy, Strauss and Wagner.

The orchestra brought out similarly luxuriant, if much brighter, colors in a suite from Ravel's evocative and spectral "Mother Goose."

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Kennedy Center Chamber Players

Cellist David Hardy and pianist Lambert Orkis exemplified the best aspects of chamber music performance during the Kennedy Center Chamber Players concert Friday evening at the Library of Congress.

The duo presented Grieg's Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36, in exquisite detail with a thrilling, suspenseful drama. They played with an intimate familiarity of the music but made it sound spontaneous, as though discovering it for the first time. Whether conveying a dreamy, atmospheric backdrop for an emotional melodic line or engaging in a witty repartee, the musicians imparted delight to their partnership.

Nurit Bar-Josef and Marissa Regni forged a similar connection in Prokofiev's Sonata in C for Two Violins, Op. 56. They volleyed two-note motifs with the velocity of table tennis players and added inflections of anguish to the plaintive melodies before spinning away in the rustic finale.

Such a collaborative first half by the National Symphony principal players set up high expectations for Mendelssohn's Octet for Strings in E-flat, Op. 20. But its performance -- often top-heavy with imperfections in intonation and technical cleanliness -- lacked cohesion, resembling a solo violin work with string accompaniment more than the composer's suggestion of a symphony. Still, there were some exciting moments by Bar-Josef, Regni, Hardy and colleagues -- violists Daniel Foster and Abigail Evans, violinists Ricardo Cyncynates and Natasha Bogachek and cellist Glenn Garlick. The Scherzo, in particular, was stylish with a light pixie-dust quality that the ensemble excelled at in all four movements.

-- Grace Jean

Carlos Prieto

Like many artists, Mexican cellist Carlos Prieto found that after a while it was not enough just to perform wonderfully, and so for years he has worked to broaden the instrument's repertoire with a wide spectrum of Latin American music.

His program at the Cultural Institute of Mexico under the auspices of the Embassy Series on Saturday featured transcriptions he commissioned of dance movements by Miguel Bernal-Jimenez and Silvestre Revueltas; the lovely "Cancion en el Puerto" by Joaquin Gutierrez Heras, dedicated to Prieto and to the evening's accompanist, Edison Quintana; and Piazzolla's "Le Grand Tango." He also played two movements of a Kodaly cello sonata, which, far from offering a contrast in idiom, served to point out how similar in intensity and in spirit Latino and Hungarian peasant dances can be.

Prieto was at his best in the more lyrical passages. He plays with a lovely, generous tone that gave the middle "Lentamente" movement of the Revueltas and the Heras "Cancion" an almost human singing quality that never sounded forced or premeditated. The music of much of the rest of the program was of the insistent, foot-stomping variety, long on rhythmic energy, double-stops and hard-edged bowing and short on opportunities for subtlety. It was here that Prieto's playing took on moments of scrubbiness and frantic activity that seemed occasioned more by technical challenges than by artistic decisions.

Prieto introduced each piece with a short, delightful and informative story of its origins and place in the repertoire, and pianist Quintana, a longtime collaborator, accompanied with a splendid sense of style and of ensemble.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Post-Classical Ensemble

Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Spain's most famous novel at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Saturday night, the Post-Classical Ensemble presented "Celebrating Don Quixote," a charming collection of music inspired by literature's quixotic hero. The 28-piece orchestra, led by music director Angel Gil-Ordonez, featured baritone Chris Pedro Trakas in Jacques Ibert's "Songs for Don Quichotte" and Ravel's "Don Quichotte a Dulcinee."

Trakas's elegant and sweetly expressive voice conveyed Don Quixote's musings in song and narrated his adventures in excerpts from Miguel de Cervantes's text, read in English translation. During "Chanson a Boire," of Ravel's cycle, Trakas displayed sardonic humor while gliding through challenging vocal passages.

Manuel de Falla's 30-minute opera "El Retablo de Maese Pedro" ("Master Peter's Puppet Show") is based on an episode from the book in which Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho, take in a puppet show, and calls for an all-puppet cast. In collaboration with Wesleyan University's theater department and New York's Puppetsweat Theater, the ensemble gave the opera a lively performance. As life-size and hand-held puppets acted out each scene, the singing came from a trio of humans. Soprano Awet Andemicael sang the role of Master Peter's apprentice with pointed clarity, not once stumbling over the torrent of words packed into each beat. Trakas reprised his role as Don Quixote, while tenor Peter Burroughs, as Master Peter, interjected drollery into his poignant arias.

-- Grace Jean

Valeria Esposito and Gregory Kunde, above, led a Baltimore Opera Company cast in "La Sonnambula" on Friday at the Lyric Opera House.

The Kennedy Center Chamber Players, below, performed on Friday at the Library of Congress.

The Post-Classical Ensemble played music inspired by "Don Quixote" on Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

Kwame Ryan, right, conducted the Baltimore Symphony Friday at Strathmore.