Concert opera is a specialized genre that tends to be beloved by voice junkies who can mainline on pure sound without the distraction of props and wonky productions. Concert opera companies, therefore, tend to be good at putting on opera galas, since, in effect, all of their performances are galalike. And the Washington Concert Opera, at its 30th anniversary gala Sunday night at Lisner Auditorium, certainly presented a satisfying example of the genre: lots of music, effectively presented, and some memorable singing.
On paper, it looked like the women would carry the evening, and Angela Meade certainly did not disappoint. Hers is an old-school voice: big and solid, with floating pianissimos that she can swell into fortes as she flows her sound down the scale like an irresistible force, as well as individual notes of pure beauty. In an evening that focused on bel canto — the style of early-19th-century Italian opera by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini — Meade was a reminder that a powerhouse sound, as opposed to the lighter voices generally heard in this repertory these days, works just fine. Rapidity, admittedly, is not a hallmark even of her coloratura singing. The cabaletta from the aria of Bellini’s “Il pirata” sounded hardly faster than the aria, and notably phlegmatic, even though Meade’s loose hair and large fabric wrap gave a slightly unhinged impression to go with the crazy characters she was singing.
Vivica Genaux, by contrast, was a put-together package with two stunning outfits and clean, rapid coloratura. But despite the polished facade, and her penetrating timbre, there was a hollowness at the core of her voice, particularly in her opening number, “Il segreto per esser felice” from Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia,” which was colorless and hard to hear. She warmed up as the evening went on and, although she didn’t entirely shake her pitch problems and bouts of colorlessness, rose particularly to the drama of another number from “Lucrezia,” a passionate duet in which she plays the male best friend of the tenor Gennaro in an exchange so intense that more than one director has plausibly used it to make the case for the characters’ gay orientation. Michele Angelini’s Gennaro looked as if he were going to kiss her at the end of the piece.
As for Angelini, he gave the women a run for their money, largely because he started with such a flourish. The aria “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” is known mainly for its nine high Cs, but Angelini, with a striking balance between Italianate tenor showmanship and sensitive musicianship, brought out the meaning of all the words and made the high Cs simply a part of the whole. He has a lovely, warm and mercifully un-nasal voice; it is, however, a little soft-grained, so that it didn’t quite “ping” in some of the Italian repertoire, such as “Intesi, ah! tutto intesi!” from Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia,” and fell a little back in contrast to Genaux’s penetrating (although sometimes pitch-challenged) sound and Meade’s Mack truck of a voice. Then again, he had a long evening, with three solo arias and three duets, and his voice sounded a little tired by the end of the night.
Bolstering the men’s side of the equation very respectably were two younger singers in the famous duet from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” in honor of the first WCO performance. The young tenor Jonas Hacker was sweetly earnest, sounding much more solid than he had at Wolf Trap (in a role with a challenging tessitura) a few months ago, and the baritone Javier Arrey, who also sang “Ah! per sempre” from “I puritani,” was attractive if a little light in voice and heft.
Antony Walker, WCO’s music director, led his willing if sometimes limited orchestra with his usual élan, and also said a few words in honor of WCO’s founders, the spouses Peter Russell, who now runs Vocal Arts DC, and Stephen Crout, the conductor who was Walker’s predecessor. Walker has led WCO for 15 years, far longer than anyone expected when he took over as an up-and-comer in 2002; he has managed to balance an increasingly busy schedule with his duties at WCO, where he can program all kinds of unusual repertoire with usually fabulous singers. The organization is starting a new phase under a brand-new executive director, Caryn Reeves, who arrived in August from the Glimmerglass Festival and who, one hopes, can keep infusing the company with the fresh resources and fresh audiences it needs to keep putting out all that sound to grateful voice-lovers.
The Washington Concert Opera will present “Hérodiade,” with Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Fabiano, on Nov. 20.