Chances are that you haven’t heard Verdi’s opera “Il Corsaro.” You don’t necessarily need to make good on the omission. Certainly, it has plenty of the melting tunes that make Verdi’s best operas so effective; some promising ensembles; some juicy singing.
The result, however, is a fairly pale tracing of Byron’s “The Corsair,” pushed to operatic ludicrousness by a neurotic heroine named Medora who spends the whole opera in a state of semi-hysteria, first wringing her hands at the thought that something might happen to her beloved Corrado and then, when he’s late getting home, deciding he’s dead and precipitously swallowing poison just before he comes striding back onstage. Corrado watches her expire in bewilderment and then jumps into the sea. I have a high tolerance for the vagaries of Italian opera plots, but even I roll my eyes at this one.
Sunday at Lisner Auditorium, however, the Washington Concert Opera gave reason, if not to learn the opera by heart, at least to hear it with interest and enjoyment. The reason was tenor Michael Fabiano.
Fabiano is an old-school tenor: He hits the stage looking and sounding like something out of the Golden Age. Sunday, he made a romantic, lyrical sound with a heroic ring to it, starting from the moment he opened the piece by striding onstage, letting loose with what amounts to a vocal fanfare, and getting everyone in the room to sit up and take notice. Fabiano, only 29, has been in opera’s spotlight at least since he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007; then, some criticized him for being too wild and unfettered. He seems to have compensated in recent years by carefully reining himself in, which can sometimes give a superficial impression of overschooling and polish but which overall has more the effect of a volcano suppressing its eruptions. Last fall, he showed Washington in a recital what it looks and sounds like to leave your heart onstage; Sunday, after his opening fusillade, he seemed determined, during the first act, to hold himself more in check as Corrado.
This initial restraint seemed to be shared by the rest of the cast during the first act; even the usually buoyant Antony Walker, WCO’s artistic director, offered a few tempi that were markedly too slow. For at least one singer, the issue was casting: The voice of Nicole Cabell, who sang Medora, has a different kind of beauty, liquid and limpid and a size or two small for even this early role by a composer whose vocal writing makes considerable demands on an instrument.
Medora is featured only at the start and end of the opera; in the middle, Corrado goes off to fight the Ottomans, is captured by the Pasha Seid — sung powerfully and loudly by the dark baritone Sebastian Catana — and meets the harem favorite Gulnara, an even bigger soprano role that Tamara Wilson carried off with a large, pointed, slightly metallic sound.
Intermission seemed to free up everyone. Catana’s Pasha, having tended toward barkiness in the first act, opened up with some individual smooth notes and vocal force in his Act II aria. And Wilson and Fabiano really showed their stuff in a duet that involved a lot of posturing (“I will free you from prison!” “I scorn your help!”) as a springboard to some enthralling Verdian fireworks. Eduardo Castro, Wayne Jennings, Tad Czyzewski and Patrick Toomey filled in the small roles of various minor officials and slaves, with Toomey in particular conveying something in his few sung lines.
“Il Corsaro” evokes other Verdi favorites: hints of “Macbeth,” reminiscences of “Ernani.” It’s hard to believe that these slightly crude, rousing choruses (lustily executed by the WCO chorus) and full ensembles were written well after that earlier and more fully realized work, and only a couple of years before the flowering that began with “Rigoletto.” In between, Verdi went through what he called the galley years, of which “Il Corsaro” (and “I Masnadieri,” which WCO did last fall) is audibly a product. This is music that calls for earthiness, not, alas, a quality in which young singers these days are widely trained.
But by the end of the opera, the emotion prevailed: Cabell let herself go; Wilson unleashed some big, high notes; and Fabiano, with his trademark appearance of preternatural calm, let out some big, thrilling phrases and casually met his watery end, to the audience’s enthusiastic applause.