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Washington Concert Opera’s ‘Orphée’ lights up the underworld

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey leads the way through a dazzling performance of Berlioz’s adaptation of the Gluck classic

Kate Lindsey in Washington Concert Opera's production of “Orphée” at Lisner Auditorium on April 24. (Caitlin Oldham)
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The underworld actually sounded quite lovely on Sunday night at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Credit goes to the Washington Concert Opera, which spruced the place up with a concert presentation of “Orphée” that alternated between enchanting and exciting.

The opera in four acts, composed in 1762 by Christoph Willibald Gluck (with a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi), was arranged anew in 1859 by Hector Berlioz to allow for the great mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot to sing the lead. (The part of Orphée was originally sung by castrati, and later by high tenors.)

There’s a longer, more serpentine history and lineage of translations, re-translations, hybrids and adaptations of this opera and its various versions, but what mattered on Sunday (to performers and listeners alike, it seemed) was the immediacy of the moment, the chance to distill the work to its most essential qualities and lend it a sometimes overwhelming sense of presence.

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My esteemed predecessor at this desk had some wise observations on the particular allure of concert opera: “It’s freer,” Anne Midgette wrote. Meaning that it’s easier to get fantastic singers and explore lesser-known works when you don’t face the burden of several months in rehearsal. (Next month, WCO will present Léo Delibes’ seldom-staged “Lakme.”) The “one-night-stand” standard of concert opera performance also lends an extra charge to a given program or a given cast — though in this case, I do sorely regret being unable to direct you to a repeat.

I’d add that the concert opera format also allows an opera audience’s attention to settle differently, to attune more tightly to the music, to collaborate in listening to the finer points often lost behind lights, sets and costumes. For conductor Antony Walker, the concert format also provided an opportunity to explore and elevate fine details in the score, of which there are many.

In a company first, Sunday’s presentation also featured a dance component, the duo of Washington Ballet dancers Nardia Boodoo and Andile Ndlovu. This didn’t amount to a semi-staging so much as a kind of illustration around the music’s margins. Their performance to the side of the orchestra had a simple but calligraphic grace, sometimes evoking the beauty of the natural world, other times embodying the flames that consume the one below.

Orphée was sung by mezzo-soprano (and Richmond native) Kate Lindsey, by now a WCO regular after a triumphant title turn as Sapho as well as singing Romeo in Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” and Leonora in Donizetti’s “La Favorite.” Lindsey inhabited the role with a complexity above and beyond the call of concert opera, where it’s often enough just to stand and sing beautifully (which she also did, the gleam of her tone the kind that finds your forehead).

Lindsey has exquisite control, finding her place within and atop the music without ever disappearing below its surface. Her comfort navigating the underworld makes sense: She’s preparing to sing twin roles as La Musica (Music) and La Speranza (Hope) in Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” at Vienna State Opera. As Orphée, she captured the lover’s confidence as deftly as his collapse into grief. Her “J’ai pedu mon Eurydice” was devastatingly beautiful — I felt a pang of guilt getting such thrills from such convincing heartbreak.

Soprano Jacquelyn Stucker made a memorable WCO debut in the role of Eurydice. Her “Fortune ennemie” — in which Eurydice mistakes Orphée’s averted gaze as proof of infidelity — was a stirring and often shocking alchemy of despair and fury. Her duet with Lindsey (“Viens, suis un epoux”) showcased a silvery luster, and her celebration of perpetual bliss in the Elysian fields with the chorus (“Cet asile aimable et tranquille”) was bright, feather-light and genuinely uplifting. The Washington Concert Opera Chorus, too, was strong and sound throughout the evening, led by assistant conductor and chorus master David Hanlon.

The role of Amour — or Cupid — was sung by soprano Helen Zhibing Huang. Also making her WCO debut, she offered a playful, engaging performance, but her voice seemed measured by caution. She wasn’t nearly as present as Lindsey, and I would have favored a vision of Love that teases a touch more power below the surface.

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The Washington Concert Opera Orchestra was in largely fine form, despite some persistent intonation issues in the strings through the first act. (A side effect of an unexpectedly muggy afternoon?) Walker tightened things up and a new energy seemed to cascade through the players. Oboist Fatma Daglar’s playing was a particular highlight, as was Nicolette Oppelt’s dazzling work on flute — both had their work cut out for them.

At the end, spoiler alert, love triumphs. Amour rejoins the lovers and the chorus offers its farewell. As journeys to hell and back go, this one was a pleasure.

Washington Concert Opera’s next presentation is Léo Delibes’ “Lakme” on May 22 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. concertopera.org.

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