At least since Montserrat Caballé made her U.S. debut with the American Opera Society at Carnegie Hall in 1965, concert opera performances have been among the most vocally exciting events of the operatic year. The Washington Concert Opera certainly upheld this on Sunday night with a sumptuously cast, sumptuously sung performance of Massenet’s “Hérodiade.”
Why is concert opera so often more fun than staged opera? Because it’s freer. It’s easier to get great singers to come in for a showcase role and only a week of work than it is to engage them for the four to six weeks of rehearsal and performance time a staged opera generally requires. You can do unusual works, because you don’t have to sell tickets to multiple performances: Most concert opera companies present one-night stands. Sunday’s performance, in fact, was yet another reason to take a long, hard look at the opera business. It would be great to get this kind of pizazz at the Washington National Opera, or even at the Met, on a more regular basis, but it doesn’t happen often.
Then again, a cast like this doesn’t come along very often. Those who lament that exciting singing is dead, take heart, because the young singers onstage at the Lisner Auditorium proved that thesis wrong with some thrillingly sung, blood-and-guts performances. I’ve raved before about Michael Fabiano (last heard at WCO in “Il Corsaro” in 2014), but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him sing with the clarity and power he brought to the role of Jean (John the Baptist) on Sunday, his sound heroic and translucent, with no evident strain, culminating in a showstopping performance of his aria “Adieu donc, vains objets” in Act IV. The soprano Joyce El-Khoury sang Salomé — which in this opera is an innocent role for a lyric soprano, unlike the better-known title figure of Richard Strauss’s opera — with a voice that has a dark, mezzo-soprano quality in its lower middle range and a slender, athletic top that she happily shrinks down to ethereal pianissimos.
And Dana Beth Miller, a late replacement, brought a powerhouse mezzo bristling with emotion to the title role, Hérodiade (Herodias, whom Salomé does not know is her mother until the final bars of the work). When the three of them, or any combination thereof, got together onstage, backed up by some impressive supporting singers, there were considerable fireworks, while Antony Walker, WCO’s music director, leapt about the podium and the WCO chorus was put through its paces with one stirring chorus after another.
When a night is this on, you can hear everyone’s performance pushing everyone else into ever higher gear — especially when there’s a strong supporting cast. Two alums of the Domingo-Cafritz program at the Washington National Opera, Aleksey Bogdanov and Wei Wu, distinguished themselves; Wu, in particular, had something of a breakthrough night in the role of the court astrologer/adviser Phanuel, which showcased his beautiful, rich, low bass voice and got him to move past the constriction that marked his upper notes in the first couple of acts. Shannon Jennings sang prettily in the small role of a young Babylonian. The weakest link was Ricardo Rivera, who threw himself into incorporating Herod but whose baritone was a little light to back up the part, even in his aria “Vision fugitive” — until he marshaled all his resources in the last two acts.
And oh, that music, seductive and tuneful without being overly sappy, with a few “greatest hits” of its own (including Salomé’s sometimes-anthologized aria “Il est doux, il est bon”). In an operatic era allegedly fixated on Puccini, it’s odd that companies don’t mine Massenet’s scores more: “Manon” and “Werther” are staples, but the other works, though once wildly popular, are today only infrequently performed. The Lyric Opera of Chicago is doing “Don Quichotte,” which is a glorious showcase for a bass. (Ferruccio Furlanetto is showing that he has plenty of beauty left in his vocal tank.)
As for “Hérodiade,” which I last saw staged in 1995: “Why don’t we hear this opera more often?” people asked, at intermission and after the show. Answer: Because impresarios are scared that they won’t be able to sell tickets to five or six performances of it. And maybe they won’t, but maybe we need to find a way to rethink the system. Because if opera were more like this, more often, I guarantee that more people would want to come.
Washington Concert Opera’s next performance is Beethoven’s “Leonore” on March 5.