WASHINGTON, February 22, 2018: For adventurous classical music ears and minds, the Washington Concert Opera (WCO) is still the way to go in Washington, D.C. Like clockwork, this company discovers and performs good-to-great operas that no one but serious music scholars has ever heard or even heard of. Case in point: this past Sunday’s snappy, enthusiastic concert performance of Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium.
The WCO Orchestra, under the baton of Artistic Director Antony Walker, seemed noticeably fired up for this obscure opera, lending some extra oomph and excitement to Sunday’s performance of a nearly forgotten classic.
Maria di Rohan was composed late in Donizetti’s career, not long before his tragic and unpleasant early death. From the standpoint of Donizetti’s career, the opera offers a tantalizing glimpse into the musical landscape the composer was exploring near the end of his life.
Mozart’s 40th and 41st Symphonies – also composed not long before his own early death – offer hints of the Romantic era that was to come and that Mozart might have pioneered had he lived past his 35th year. Similarly, the punchy melodrama and minimal vocal ornamentation of Maria di Rohan suggests that Donizetti may have begun to look beyond bel canto and into the “sung dialogue” style known as “verismo.”
A short summary of this opera’s Byzantine plot might take up too much room here, so let’s try an executive summary.
Maria takes place during the reign of French King Louis XIII during the time when the notorious, scheming Cardinal Richelieu served as the King’s chief minister. Our heroine, once in love with the noble Riccardo, has been married off, with great reluctance, to Enrico, who, having gotten on the wrong side of the Cardinal, is languishing in prison as the opera opens.
In short order, Riccardo, at Maria’s request, reluctantly rescues her husband from certain death, at which point, conveniently, the Cardinal is (temporarily) removed from power by the king. A grateful Enrico embraces Riccardo as his friend, even offering to serve as his second in an upcoming duel Riccardo must fight with the villainous Armondo di Gondi.
Riccardo and Maria secretly plan to light out for the territories together. But when Enrico finds out about the plan – and when the Cardinal returns – the opera heads for a fairly typical tragic resolution.
One interesting peculiarity: Neither Louis XIII nor Cardinal Richelieu ever appears on stage. Instead, Donizetti’s plot deals exclusively with the scheming, power- and influence-hungry upper level bureaucrats who crank the gears of government. It reminds us, in a way, of contemporary Washington, where serial power plays increasingly take precedence over serving the American people.
Politics and “verismo” foreshadowing aside, it’s the singing in the end that WCO’s loyal patrons and followers come to hear That said, for whatever reason, attendance was somewhat sparse on Sunday, perhaps due in part to the genuine obscurity of this opera. Say, Washington opera fans, where’s your sense of adventure?
At any rate, those who attended this performance were not disappointed.
Heading up WCO’s exceptional cast were youthful singing Italian-American (or American-Italian) sisters Ginger and Marina Costa-Jackson. Mezzo-soprano Ginger has already been making a splash with her feisty Carmen – performed in this area in 2014 by Virginia Opera at George Mason’ University’s Center for the Arts. She has recently appeared at the New York Metropolitan Opera in her first leading role as the Count’s romantic interest, Rosina in Barber of Seville.
Soprano Marina has also been making a name for herself with roles such as Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème and Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Undoubtedly, her experience in these operas made her an excellent choice to sing the lead role in Maria di Rohan, an opera that clearly foreshadows early Verdi as well as Puccini’s later dramatic lyricism. Her robust, deeply-supported voice seemed a bit of a surprise at first in an opera that’s at least nominally bel canto. But it worked fantastically well in this performance, aiding and abetting the exciting orchestral accompaniment.
With considerable flair, sister Ginger swaggered onstage in a swirling black gown to portray, with relish, Maria’s villainous Armondo di Gondi, a mezzo-soprano “trouser role” in this opera. Bold and self-possessed, she sang with believable conviction and great expressiveness, mirroring her notable performance in Virginia Opera’s Carmen by developing her portrayal of Armondo considerably beyond the usual constraints of concert opera.
Rounding out this opera’s quartet of lead singers were tenor Norman Reinhardt’s Riccardo and baritone Lester Lynch’s Enrico.
Reinhardt’s strong yet still lyric tenor seemed perfect for his romantic role as Riccardo. He was particularly strong during the opera’s early innings, impressively so. But he seemed to experience some vocal difficulties a bit later in the evening leading him to hold back at times. It happens, particularly given the kind of weird weather we’ve been experiencing lately on the East Coast.
As Enrico, Lester Lynch was quite a surprise. From his initial entry on stage to the very end of the opera, his commanding baritone possessed an almost overwhelming yet exquisitely nuanced power and authority. His dominating presence on stage arguably transformed the libretto’s otherwise cardboard cutout Enrico into a formidable character that virtually stole the show.
Better yet, his knife-clean delivery, combined with his natural vocal power, was perfectly calibrated to match Donizetti’s surging orchestra accompaniment. That’s something we don’t often experience in operas we attend, given that the lower registers of the male voice often get buried in the orchestral timbre.
Altogether, WCO’s Maria di Rohan was a terrific evening of unknown opera, brought back to life by a WCO team that cared what it was doing and strove for excellence throughout the evening.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)