The Opera Drought of 1990 began around 11:15 last night when the final, exultant chords of "The Magic Flute" faded into the dark sky over Wolf Trap.
The opera season in the Washington area runs about 10 months, from early November to late August, with occasional intermissions -- around Christmas and Easter, for example. Outside the season, there are a few diversions -- for example, the Washington Concert Opera's "Lucrezia Borgia" with Nelly Miricioiu on Sept. 23, and the Maryland Lyric Opera's "The Little Sweep" in Frederick on Oct. 5 and 7. But the season proper will not return until Nov. 3 when "Salome" dances into the Kennedy Center Opera House, shedding veils along the way.
For the true opera addict, the prospect of such a dry spell is intolerable. One solution is to move to New York, where the City Opera's season runs from July 31 through Nov. 18, by which time the Metropolitan Opera will be well launched on its 1990-91 season. If you hurry, you might be able to catch "The Marriage of Figaro" this afternoon. Less drastic, and perhaps less expensive, might be an investment in some of the opera recordings that have been coming out on compact discs recently at a breathtaking pace.
Many an opera on CD can be purchased for half the top price of a Washington Opera ticket or less and, while there is nothing like being in the room where a performance is happening, recordings have a few advantages over live performances. You don't have to worry about parking (a constant problem at the Kennedy Center), fuss about getting your tuxedo pressed or agonize over finding a babysitter. You can listen, if you choose, at home in your pajamas, unshaven and with a six-pack at your elbow.
Artistically, recorded opera offers so many options that nearly any taste can be satisfied. There is a wealth of unusual repertoire, ranging from Handel's "Flavio" and Mozart's "Mitridate, Re di Ponto" to Harry Partch's "Revelation in the Courthouse Park" and Robert Ward's "The Crucible," that we are not likely to see in Washington in the near future. There are great performers of the past, ranging from Kirsten Flagstad to Karl Boehm, whom we will never see again; but they can be brought back to life by the touch of a laser beam on the coded surface of a small, shiny disc.
Some beloved classics, such as "Lucia di Lammermoor" and "Don Giovanni," we can never hear too often -- and on CD they can be played again and again with no sign of deterioration. There are experiences that we want to revisit -- Massenet's "Werther," perhaps -- and others for which we wish to prepare. Next month's "Lucrezia Borgia," for example, will certainly be more enjoyable to those who spend a few hours with the excellent RCA recording (6642-2-RG, two CDs with libretto), which has a star cast headed by Shirley Verrett.
Briefly noted below are a few operas available on CD that probably will be seen in Washington next year.
Revelation in the Courthouse Park (Tomato 2696552, two CDs with libretto). Composer-librettist Harry Partch, a man who invented new instruments to play his music, found his ideal subject in the "Bacchae" of Euripides -- a confrontation between the orgiastic spirit of unreason and the forces of law and logic. The subject is treated in classic Greco-Roman style but also modernized (Dionysus becomes Dion, a rock singer); spoken dialogue slips into chanting and ecstatic choruses with otherworldly instrumental sounds; and the power of this ancient timely fable is brilliantly conveyed by a cast from last year's American Music Theater Festival.
The Greek Passion (Supraphon 10 3611-2, two CDs with libretto). Bohuslav Martinu was a native of Czechoslovakia but moved to the United States during World War II and wrote the libretto in English for his remarkable opera (based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) that makes a microcosm of a little Greek village. The "Passion" in the title is a traditional passion play in which central events of the life of Christ (including his death) are reenacted. The villagers who take various roles (Christ, Judas, Magdalen) come to embody the roles in their own lives. The music reaches great dramatic power without losing its limpid simplicity. An English-speaking cast (mostly from the Welsh National Opera) was brought to Czechoslovakia for this recording, with a Czechoslovak orchestra and chorus eloquently conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.
The Crucible (Albany TROY025-26-2, two CDs with libretto). Robert Ward won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for music with his powerful operatic adaptation of Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witchcraft trials. The work was commissioned by the New York City Opera, and this recording of a City Opera performance amounts to an original-cast album. It exemplifies the high quality of American opera at its best.
The Fairy Queen (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901308.09, two CDs with libretto). Except for "Dido and Aeneas," Henry Purcell did not exactly write operas. He wrote extravaganzas -- one might almost say 17th-century equivalents of "Cats" or "The Phantom of the Opera" -- as Washington will observe when his "King Arthur" opens at the Eisenhower Theater Jan. 5. "The Fairy Queen" is based very loosely on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," not on Spenser's "The Faery Queene" -- on which, curiously, "King Arthur" is more or less based. It doesn't really matter; what matters is the inventiveness of the score, including a lot of elaborate dance music, a drinking song sung by someone who is already drunk, appearances by such characters as Night, Mystery, Secrecy and Sleep -- all of whom inspire very distinctive music: a pastoral interlude, an aria for the sun god etc. If you don't insist on logical coherence, it's wonderful. The performance, by Les Arts Florissants with William Christie conducting, is exquisite.
Stiffelio (Philips 422 432-2, two CDs with libretto). Un Giorno di Regno (Philips 422 429-2, two CDs with libretto). For more than a century, most people knew these two works of Verdi by name only, and the general opinion was that they were not worth reviving. But revived they have been -- lovingly, with Lamberto Gardelli conducting casts that include such luminaries as Jose Carreras, Jessye Norman, Sylvia Sass and Ingvar Wixell -- and they turn out to be very worthwhile indeed, if not quite equal to "Rigoletto" or "Falstaff."
"Stiffelio," a domestic melodrama involving marital infidelity, looks ahead to "Un Ballo in Maschera" in some of its situations, and the music has great dramatic power. "Un Giorno di Regno" ("King for a Day," subtitled "Il Finto Stanislao," or "The Feigned Stanislaus") is a comedy about the amorous exploits of a young man pretending to be the exiled king of Poland. Its first production, at La Scala in 1840, lasted only one performance, and it was the last comedy Verdi wrote until "Falstaff" in 1893. But for that very reason, it presents a side of Verdi that is seldom seen, close to his great predecessors Donizetti and Rossini and not only interesting in historic perspective but bright and entertaining. Neither work is likely to get a better recording in a long while, and both deserve the quality of performance and sound Philips has provided.
Mitridate, Re di Ponto (Memories HR 4156/57, two CDs with libretto). The performance (live, Salzburg, 1970) is outstanding; Conductor Leopold Hager is a reliable Mozartean, and his cast includes Ileana Cotrubas and Brigitte Fassbaender, both in good voice. Where this production disappoints is in the documentation. The booklet has the opera's text in Italian but only a plot summary in English and no real annotation -- not even the Koechel catalogue number (a mind-bogglingly early 87).It also does not mention that Mozart was only 14 when he wrote this intricate masterpiece. This is an opera seria, a rigid archaic form that Mozart's later operas made obsolete, although he never entirely abandoned it, and all this should be mentioned in the booklet. Still, this is an item no serious Mozartean can ignore. The sound is mono, closely miked and quite adequate.
Flavio (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901312.13, two CDs with libretto). Those who have enjoyed the stylish, thoughtful performances of Rene Jacobs as a countertenor will find him equally adept as a conductor of Handelian opera. His excellent cast includes two other leading countertenors, Derek Lee Ragin and Jeffrey Gall, who sing for Jacobs with special distinction, as a trumpet soloist might with Gerard Schwarz conducting or a cellist with Mstislav Rostropovich. Handel, the supreme master of the opera seria form, made its artificialities sound natural and emotionally powerful. The annotation is excellent, with the text in four languages (it is sung in Italian) and an introduction by Winton Dean.
Those who would like to hear Handel in a more approachable vein should try his charming little pastoral drama Acis and Galatea, which has a text in English. It is delectably presented on Hyperion (CDA66361/2, two CDs with libretto), with Claron McFadden and John Mark Ainsley charming in the title roles, Michael George impressive in the great bass aria "Ruddier Than the Cherry" and Robert King conducting idiomatically.
La Rondine (RCA 60459-2-RG, two CDs with libretto). Giacomo Puccini tried, once and once only, to write an operetta in the manner of Johann Strauss Jr. The result, "La Rondine," is a hybrid that has been criticized equally by hard-core Puccinians and Straussophiles but has been found charming by many listeners with more open minds. Its charms are presented persuasively by Anna Moffo and a strong supporting cast in this bargain-priced 1966 recording.