WASHINGTON, March 4, 2012 – Prior to departing as the Washington National Opera’s general director, Plácido Domingo instituted the “Plácido Domingo Celebrity Series” of concerts, featuring world-class opera stars rarely seen in these precincts or featured in WNO productions.
In some ways, these concert nights were and are “fill in” events meant, at least in part, to compensate for the company’s currently minimal schedule of operas. But happily, they’re also events to be eagerly anticipated, a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with some truly great singers we often don’t get to experience.
A case in point was last night’s concert-recital featuring superstar Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu at the Kennedy Center Opera House. As famous for her frequent cancellations as she is for her luscious voice, Ms. Gheorghiu’s appearance here—her first under WNO’s auspices—was a real coup for an organization that’s in the process of finding itself once again as part of the Kennedy Center family.
Ms. Gheorghiu presented a genuinely interesting program consisting of opera arias that, in the main, have not often been encountered in Washington. Her program also tilted in favor of lustrous French Romantic operas whose ravishing music is infrequently encountered due to the incredibly high cost of staging these 19th century multimedia extravaganzas.
Ms. Gheorghiu’s initial forays—arias from Handel’s Serse (Xerxes) and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) were accurate, correct, but somewhat ill at ease, as if the soloist were trying to gauge an audience to which she was unaccustomed. But the slightly-less-than-full house was well disposed to fall in love with this glamorous soprano. Feeling the love, she began to open up, ending the concert’s first half with a stunning, impassioned delivery of the “Song of the Moon” (“Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém”) from Antonin Dvorăk’s marvelous Rusalka.
Ms. Gheorghiu’s voice bloomed magnificently in the concert’s second half as she sang brilliant arias from Jules Massenet’s Manon and Le Cid, the latter an epic opera last seen here roughly a decade ago with Plácido Domingo in the lead. At once creamy and dusky, Ms. Gheorghiu’s instrument boasted an incredibly smooth legato tone and an astonishing range, extending comfortably into the lower mezzo range.
Ably accompanying Ms. Gheorghiu, the Washington National Opera Orchestra was mostly at its best under the steady baton of Eugene Kohn whose rapport with both the musicians and Ms. Gheorghiu clearly contributed to an enjoyable concert. The orchestra itself got a few solo opportunities, providing a break in the vocal action while also offering the soloist an opportunity to swap into three equally opulent gowns through the course of the evening.
The orchestra’s curtain raiser, Mozart’s clattery, fun overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio—or maybe better, Rescue from the Harem) found the strings a trifle muddy and out of kilter. But the playing in the remaining overture-intervals was better. The Overture to Ferdinand Hérold’s pirate opera Zampa was sprightly, as was Berlioz’ overture to Le Corsaire (more pirates), although the orchestra occasionally got lost in the clattering dual rhythms of its opening bars. Best of all was the orchestra’s interpretation of Ponchielli’s famous chestnut, the “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda—rhythmic, playful, moody, and silly, all rolled into one delightful confection.
But perhaps the orchestra’s—and Mr. Kohn’s—most significant contribution was their exquisitely tailored accompaniment to Ms. Gheorghiu’s singing. It was carefully shaped and honed to highlight and enhance the soloist’s beautifully crafted and carefully plotted approach to each aria, all of which was very much appreciated by the unusually attentive audience.
Ms. Gheorghiu rewarded her audience with a few well-chosen favorites, running from an incredibly moving performance of “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi to a rousing interpretation of that perennially popular favorite “Granada.”
At her final curtain call, Ms. Gheorghiu took the arm of the orchestra’s concertmaster and whisked him out of the hall, an amusing if broad hint that the night’s operatic revels were at an end. But what a delightful evening it was. Brava!
Rating: *** (three out of four stars.)
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