The Wolf Trap Opera Company has been fostering talented young singers for more than 40 years. But it hasn’t been able to showcase the fruits of its labors: that is, to present local audiences with the many well-known names on its roster after they made good.
So Friday night’s concert performance of “Aida” was a wonderful step — in several regards. Not only was it another opera at the Filene Center, Wolf Trap’s main stage (and the more of those in a summer, the better), it was also a tangible reminder of how well the program selects and prepares its singers: Its cast, made up exclusively of Wolf Trap alumni, was one you might well hear and enjoy at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
At a time when opera lovers tend to wring their hands about the state of Verdi singing, it was refreshing to hear a uniformly strong cast, from Michelle DeYoung, the company’s artist in residence this summer, who sang as Amneris, to Anthony Ciaramitaro, one of this year’s young studio artists, who made the most of the few lines sung by the Messenger.
The score of “Aida” does a lot of dramatic heavy lifting: If a singer is able to hit the notes accurately, it’s almost impossible not to make an effect. That’s a big “if” and perhaps a subjective measure.
I changed seats at intermission, curious about whether I would have a different experience sitting closer to the stage and out of direct range of one of the banks of speakers that are necessary in an outdoor setting. But, in the second half of the opera, this left me uncertain of how much proximity was a factor in my appreciating the performance of Marjorie Owens (Wolf Trap Class of 2005-2008), who sang as Aida. I find “Aida’s” second half stronger than its first in any case: All of the Grand March pomp goes out the window in Acts 3 and 4, and the opera tightens the psychological thumbscrews in a string of some of the best duets that Verdi ever wrote, in which each singer spurs the other to new heights.
I don’t think that my reaction to Owens was purely subjective. She sang well throughout, with a sizable voice and big, clear, easy top notes (as she showed in Washington Concert Opera’s “Guntram” earlier this year). In the first half, though, she seemed slightly dissociated from the role, failing to make a clear dramatic differentiation from one section to another of her aria “Ritorna vincitor” (Return victorious). I found more engagement and nuance in her third-act aria “O patria mia” (Oh, my country), and certainly more in her duet with Radames, when her presence seemed slightly less generic.
Much has been made of the fact that Carl Tanner (Wolf Trap Class of 1983), who sang Radames, is a former truck driver and bounty hunter from Northern Virginia; a movie is even in the works about his life. He’s also an honest, straightforward singer: If his performance as Radames tended more toward bluster than finesse, it came straight from the heart, resounding tones and all, and took on a kind of crude grace as it progressed.
Speaking of hearts, I have seldom seen a singer leave one so completely on the stage as Scott Hendricks (Wolf Trap Class of 1996-1997) did singing Amonasro. He has a strong voice, and his singing is produced with such utter conviction, such commitment to every note, that it would be churlish to resist.
DeYoung (Class of 1995) remained, for me, a bit of a cipher. She gives the impression of being tied in knots, although she hauled off and delivered some big climaxes, after the first half of the opera, that I didn’t know she had in her. (Close up, in the second half of the opera, her top notes sounded bigger and freer than they did at a greater distance.) If the cast had one fault, it was a phlegmatism that she, of all of them, most epitomized: She tended to drag a little and play slightly free with the note values, something that the ardent conductor, Daniele Callegari, did his best to counter with some very rapid tempi, whipping the National Symphony Orchestra up to find some Verdian fire — and, as often as not, succeeding.
And some of the current crop of Wolf Trap artists, including Evan Boyer and Christian Zaremba, as Ramfis the priest and the King of Egypt respectively, made a strong case for the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s continued health. So did Kerriann Otaño as the Priestess, her voice sounding huge through a layer of amplification.
The evening added up to a lot of fun. Having an alumni production like this every year would be a boon to Wolf Trap — and to local opera.
The Wolf Trap Opera will present “Madame Butterfly” at the Filene Center on Aug. 7.