Washington, September 13, 2011 – The Washington Concert Opera got a jump on DC’s fall classical music season this weekend past with a rousing, one-time-only performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s infrequently heard opera Attila at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. As WCO’s fans have come to expect, Friday’s performance crackled with phenomenal singing and crystal clear orchestral accompaniment—both hallmarks of this feisty little company whose two annual concert performances have long been must-see events for opera aficionados in the nation’s capital.
Launched in Venice in 1846, Attila is relatively early Verdi. But it’s also a classic example of the composer’s penchant for turning a seemingly unrelated historical vehicle into subtle nationalist propaganda. The story, as one might expect, revolves around the legendary barbarian Attila the Hun, famous for his sack of Rome.
Having already trashed the town of Aquilea in Verdi’s opera, Attila vows to head for Rome, turning down a deal with Roman general Ezio to leave Italy to Ezio and the Romans while keeping pretty much the rest of the Roman Empire.
Attila also takes into his entourage the formidable Odabella who’s impressed him mightily as the leader of an intrepid band of female Roman warriors—not something your average barbarian was used to encountering. Odabella plays along the leader of the invading horde. But she secretly vows to get close to Attila and whack him in private, drawing on the biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes for inspiration. But things get complicated when Odabella’s boyfriend, Foresto, keeps bumping into her carefully laid plans, vowing to dispatch Attila himself.
Verdi’s Attila fiddles liberally with events, adjusting historical facts to transform Odabella into a prototypical Italian patriot. The opera’s storyline remains compelling, nonetheless. And, at the same time—key for any opera—the vehicle provides load of dramatic opportunities for a troupe of singers who can really dig into the material. Which, of course, are the only kind of singers WCO ever signs to a contract.
The result for Attila—a thrilling performance of another relatively forgotten opera. Commented one satisfied WCO customer during one of the programs’s two intermissions: “What a wonderful opera. What wonderful singing. Why don’t other companies take a chance with some of these forgotten operas instead of staging the same old thing all the time?” Good question.
While it lacks some of the signature arias and choruses that make other Verdi operas so popular, Attila does contain many stirring, inspiring musical moments. And WCO’s cast made the most of each opportunity, casting industrial strength, Wagnerian voices that were more than a match for the composer’s formidable instrumentation.
Verdi’s lead character, the impetuous barbarian warlord Attila, requires an extra-alpha male bass-baritone with loads of attitude to spare. Which is no doubt why WCO’s artistic director and conductor Antony Walker invited John Relyea to sing the role. Tall, self-assured, and appropriately menacing, Mr. Relyea no doubt relished the opportunity to sing Attila here before performing a fully staged version with the Seattle Opera later this season. Judging from Friday’s performance, he’s already good to go with a powerful, clarion-clear instrument that establishes Attila’s dominance from the first note.
We’ve observed over the years that the lower male voices can sometimes get lost in the sonorities of the orchestral accompaniment or even in certain ensembles, given their tendency to blend so well with their musical environment. This was never a problem for Mr. Relyea, however. He maintained quality, clarity, and excellent diction throughout in his distinctive performance in the title role.
Soprano Brenda Harris was equally impressive in the role of the stalwart and patriotic Roman warrior, Odabella. The demands of Odabella’s oddly anticipate the vocal approach Wagner would later require of his Brünnhilde—strong approaching overpowering, yet still capable of great expression.
In addition, since this is early Verdi, the composer tosses in several showy coloratura opportunities as well. Ms. Harris made the most of them, displaying astounding power, an impressive range, and, when required, a coloratura mastery that seemed startling at first yet enhanced her approach to the role considerably.
As Foresto, tenor Arthur Espiritu was a bit more subtle than the two principles, possessing considerable vocal heft himself yet not their overwhelming power. He sang expressively and well throughout except for a brief moment in the later innings when he seemed briefly to have lost his place.
Baritone Jason Stearns made the most of his brief but dramatic appearances as Ezio, particularly in the second and third acts during which his Roman general takes charge of the situation, singing just as we’d imagine an imperial officer might sing: forcefully and inspirationally.
Tenor James Flora (Udino) and bass Soloman Howard (Pope Leo, or Leone) rounded out the cast, singing effectively and expressively in the opera’s smaller roles. And the WCO chorus got a strenuous vocal and physical workout as well, entering and exiting stage right and left as the dramatic situation warranted; plus, at intervals, singing quite effectively and accurately, from offstage positions.
The orchestra was disciplined and unified under the energetic baton of Maestro Walker, although the brass could have used a little augmentation at certain points—probably a matter of budget in today’s continuing perilous time for small performing arts ensembles.
It’s a long wait until WCO’s second and final 2011-2012 appearance. But they’ll be back May 13, 2012 to present Camille Saint-Saëns’ odd but still popular opera-oratorio Samson et Dalila, featuring Brandon Jovanovich and Michelle deYoung in the title roles.
Rating: *** (Three stars.)
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing insights, visit his WT Communities column, The Prudent Man in Politics.
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