We throw a lot of words around when we talk about training musicians. “Young singers” and “young artists” are used interchangeably for the eager talents that fill apprentice programs around the country. This weekend, the indomitable Wolf Trap Opera offered a few gentle, inadvertent reminders that there’s a difference between the two terms. At “Idomeneo” on Friday night at the Wolf Trap Barns, I heard several talented young singers and one wonderful young artist, Ian Koziara, in the title role.
“Idomeneo” was a pivotal opera for Mozart, showing him hitting his stride as he moves toward the brilliant trifecta of “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan tutte.” Unlike those three, “Idomeneo” is still bound by the conventions of the period, in the form known as opera seria: a piece in which one aria follows another with a few ensembles to vary what seems by today’s standards like dramatic stasis. The story seems distant to us — the King of Crete vows to sacrifice the first person he sees upon returning from the Trojan War, and, when it turns out to be son Idamante, spends the rest of the opera trying to get out of it — although it is, in fact, about duty and leadership and responsibility. Omer Ben Seadia’s production kept things light and attractive and spare, and it didn’t worry about social relevance.
Conventional wisdom has it that opera is supposed to be sung beautifully or passionately or both, and that Mozart writes music that is especially beautiful and especially appropriate for young voices. But “Idomeneo” is full of hard sings, and the idea of young and pretty music can get in the way of the kind of immediacy that opera needs to take flight. Madison Leonard, a talented soprano who has just finished a stint as one of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz young artists (and who was a winner of the Met Auditions this spring), offered sweet singing as Ilia, the captive Trojan princess who has fallen in love with Idamante. But although she was lovely to hear, she was not fully compelling. As Idamante, Megan Mikailovna Samarin also sang very nicely and brought across the frustration of her young character, but the upper middle and top of her voice sounded a little thin and strained. Elettra, another exiled princess, is sometimes the runaway heroine of this opera, but Yelena Dyachek was a little too mannered and schooled in her wildness, and her voice had a sharp edge to it that I found slightly grating.
Koziara’s Idomeneo shifted the proceedings into a higher gear, from the opening recitative, sung with striking beauty of tone, as his character lies tossed up on the rocks by the shore in Ryan Howell’s spare set. Beauty, though, wasn’t the hallmark of his singing, which indeed was almost pushed in a few bigger passages. His appeal was more simple: When he was onstage, he held your attention. Staring at his looming fate with mad, yellow eyes, he spat out his lines, or offered coloratura runs — those long strings of florid notes that characterize this style — that were never simply ornamental, but always had dramatic weight. His king was royal and haunted and evoked nothing so much as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, another brilliant operatic invention that I’d love to hear this singer take on in the years ahead.
Flawed but vivid, too, was the conducting of Geoffrey McDonald, who drummed the small orchestra up into a sense that something was actually happening in the music. This sense, unfortunately, didn’t carry across to the chorus, which sounded like exactly what it was: a group of young soloists who had auditioned and won places in Wolf Trap’s prestigious summer season and had yet to jell into a choral ensemble, although they conveyed the sense of the multiplicity of voices in a crowd well.
On Saturday night, a group of Wolf Trap’s singers stretched themselves in an altogether different direction, taking part in Septime Webre’s production of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” Kurt Weill’s song cycle, as part of the By The People festival, with dancers, held in the multipurpose, loftlike space of Dock 5 at Union Market. The piece wasn’t as hip as the setting, nor did it carry the singers as far from their comfort zone as it should have in order to work. Annie Rosen, a mezzo, gave a game portrayal of Anna, the main singer, but she sang so prettily that the bite of this sardonic, satirical piece was absent. That wasn’t only her fault: Webre’s choreography, featuring dancers from the Hong Kong Ballet, was cliched, and Kristen Ahern’s 1980s-style costumes made everyone look like refugees from the Brat Pack.
The quartet of male singers also featured in this piece were better served in the motley first half of the evening that Wolf Trap cooked up, a medley of popular and art songs intended to amplify themes of the festival, which appeared to be social injustice, diversity and America. Opera singers tend to come off as over-earnest when singing popular songs, especially when inexplicably and unnecessarily outfitted with a mic. But some of this group managed to trump its stiltedness. Johnathan McCullough, a baritone, accompanied some of the numbers on guitar, singing out ringing and earnest versions of Paul Simon’s “America” and Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” and “Wild Honey Pie” with the tenor Nicholas Nestorak and others. And the mezzo Zoie Reams was outstanding in “Strange Fruit,” singing memorably and idiomatically and shading the notes with a thousand levels of scorn and meaning and pain. That, too, is artistry. Opera programs, as a whole, could use more of it.
“Idomeneo” has additional performances on Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon at the Wolf Trap Barns.