It need not take the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth to appreciate his importance in the history of opera, but it is a good excuse. Washington Concert Opera has dedicated its 2013-14 season to the Italian composer, beginning with a performance of the lesser-known “I masnadieri” on Sunday night at Lisner Auditorium. (Another Verdi rarity, “Il corsaro,” will follow in March.)
No one is likely to take the libretto of “I masnadieri” for one of the best Verdi chose. Carlo, the estranged son of a German count, has taken up with a band of robbers, a life of crime he fears will never allow him to return home to his beloved cousin, Amalia. In Carlo’s absence, his scheming younger brother, Francesco, plots to kill their father and steal Carlo’s bride and his inheritance. The plot has several unbelievable twists, and the scenes with the robbers’ chorus are particularly clumsy. It is never a good sign when a tragic opera gets more laughs than some Rossini comedies do.
The libretto did offer up a satanic villain in the plotting Francesco, a sort of model for Verdi’s much stronger characterization of Iago in “Otello.” Baritone Scott Hendricks sang the role with such sneering force that he drew hisses from the crowd. Soprano Lisette Oropesa made a pleasing debut as the suffering Amalia, but the real discovery was tenor Russell Thomas, whose Carlo was full-voiced and poignantly phrased. As the father, Massimiliano, bass Hao Jiang Tian had a resonant tone, with just a few places where cracks in the varnish showed. Among the smaller roles, bass Soloman Howard stood out for his booming appearance as Moser in the fourth act. Conductor Antony Walker worked his usual miracles at the podium, eliciting strong performances from chorus and orchestra, notably a plangent solo in the overture by cellist Gita Ladd.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the singer in the photo. It is Scott Hendricks, not Rolando Sanz.
Downey is a freelance writer.