WNO's world premiere holiday opera a pleasant family success

Jeanine Tesori opus exudes charm and high spirits, appeals to all ages. Photo: Scott Suchman for WNO

WASHINGTON, December 19, 2013 – The Washington National Opera last weekend presented its second annual holiday opera of the Francesca Zambello era, this time choosing to mount a brand new work in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. This world premiere production of Jeanine Tesori’s “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me,” was commissioned and produced by WNO.

The story line of this new work is simple and straightforward. A young angel (Henry Wager) gets the job of finding and hiring some earthly creature to carry Mary, accompanied by her husband Joseph, to the town of Bethlehem where, as we already know, a very important event is about to occur.

Will he choose the jazzy, preening and very pink flamingo? The proud and powerful lion? The showy but possibly imaginary unicorn? Or perhaps even the ordinary, not very distinguished donkey? (Are we giving things away?)

While Act I of the opera focuses on this humorous not-quite-biblical “Star Search,” Act II relives the momentous occasion of Christ’s birth among the animals in a lowly stable, which we celebrate in our own time on December 25.

Based on a book by Jeanette Winterson and with an English-language libretto by J. D. McClatchy, this little opera is simple without being simplistic, offers positive role models for children without becoming preachy, and is loaded with slightly modernist-tinged music that, while not sending anyone home with a Grammy Award-winning tune, is still eminently enjoyable and thematically appropriate.

A relative newcomer to the world of opera, Ms. Tesori is likely best known to date for her music to “Shrek the Musical,” which is oddly the kind of background that seems to have served her well in this current composition.

“Lion, etc.” gets a considerable boost on its way from the effort and quality its creative team put into the work. This little opera is distinguished not only by Mr. McClatchy’s uncommonly rich and aware libretto, but also by the composer’s slightly modernist yet easy to listen to score, which employs a kind of “verismo light” approach to navigate and embellish both its characters and its narrative line.

As is fast becoming WNO’s custom under Ms. Zambello, “Lion” largely employs the talented young singers of the Domingo-Cafritz program, all of whom are a delight, brightening and polishing this charming holiday effort with the enthusiasm and care they put into their vocal performances. Additional singers were excellent as well as was WNO’s new children’s chorus, whose members were really quite good in this outing, opting to strive for excellence instead of being simply appealing.

The showiest performance in this opera was turned in by the versatile bass Solomon Howard whose own star is already shining brightly in the list of current opera up-and-comers. On opening night, his lion was picture perfect for the occasion: regal, haughty, a bit full of himself, yet also possessed with a surprising touch of the paterfamilias, all of which erupted every time he expressed himself in song.

Not to be outdone, Lisa Williamson’s cocky flamingo also proved to be a showstopper. Jacqueline Echols’ characterization of the mysterious unicorn was picture perfect. And John Orduña’s lowly, self-effacing donkey proved extraordinarily sympathetic and appealing as well as offering a lesson in perseverance and integrity to the youngsters in attendance.

SEE RELATED: Virginia Opera’s ‘Magic Flute’ a delight at GMU

Among the human characters, Catherine Martin stood out as a gentle but surprisingly regal Mary, and boy soprano Henry Wager met and exceeded the considerable challenge of singing the role of the young angel. The role is a dominant one in the first act, and Mr. Wager’s appeal came close at time to stealing the show. Which, after all, is perfectly fine for a family opera.

Kimberly Grigsby ably directed the soloists, chorus, and small WNO orchestra subset from the modest Terrace Theater pit, although at times the orchestra was a bit too loud for the singers. This was at times a problem for the audience. Although the production was sung in a generally well-enunciated English, there were no projected surtitles. So when the singers were washed out, so, too, was the dialogue and the narrative. Likely this weekend’s concluding performances will be in better balance.

The sets for this production were simple and economical, but looked good and not cheap. The look and feel of the onstage proceedings was considerably enhanced by the bright, energetic and highly creative costumes of Eric Teague—particularly the fantastic outfits of the lion, the unicorn and the flamingo. The funny puppets, both large and small, added to the whimsy as did the slightly ghoulish yet amusing surprise appearance of the heads of three ex-lambs.

The whole considerable enterprise was directed with an appropriately light touch by Ms. Zambello who is also to be applauded for marshaling this whole delightful enterprise to its clearly successful Kennedy Center conclusion.

It would be nice to eventually find “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me” becoming part of a rotating selection of holiday family operas at the Kennedy Center. Indeed, those generally accepted Christmastime favorites like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Amahl” could use some competition. This pleasant, non-preachy, non-didactic yet exemplary newcomer has just the right music, story, and reverence for the season that could help it catch on in a lot of places over the coming years.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

WNO’s “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me” concludes its short run at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater this weekend, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings (7:30 p.m.) and also a pair of Saturday and Sunday matinees (2 p.m.). Tickets are $44 and up.

For tickets and information, visit WNO on the Kennedy Center website.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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