Washington Concert Opera’s awe-inspiring ‘Hérodiade’

WCO’s Thanksgiving week performance of neglected Massenet masterpiece was one for the ages as Michael Fabiano, Joyce El-Khoury dazzle Lisner audience.

Michael Fabiano, Joyce El-Khoury, Dana Beth Miller star in Washington Concert Opera's production of Massenet's "Hérodiade."

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2016 – The Washington Concert Opera (WCO) did what it does best this Saturday past at its Lisner Auditorium home, offering a thrilling performance of an opera most audiences have likely never encountered: Massenet’s “Hérodiade,” an opera based (rather loosely) on the story of Salomé, John the Baptist and the goings on in the court of the depraved King Herod and his unhappy, scheming wife Herodias, the title character.

As always, Maestro Antony Walker, was at the podium Sunday night conducting the company’s fine orchestra and stellar cast of singers, bringing this opera back to life without the benefit of lavish sets and props. Of necessity, concert opera focuses squarely on the singers, and WCO’s cast for this opera was A+ double-good.

Quite unlike Richard Strauss’ more famous, more tragic (and more scandalous) “Salomé,” which was based on a bizarrely erotic stage work by Oscar Wilde, Massenet’s version of the Salomé story is decidedly revisionist to the point where Salomé and John the Baptist are about to become lovers. This reminds us a bit of Thomas’ “Hamlet,” in which the indecisive Prince of Denmark survives in an opera that concludes with a happy ending—although “Hérodiade” doesn’t quite go that far, thank heaven.

Although Herodias is the nominal central character in this opera, it’s John the Baptist and Salomé who do the bulk of the vocal heavy lifting.

As John, tenor Michael Fabiano was quite simply fabulous, singing with a romantic intensity that was almost disconcerting at times unless you immersed yourself in this opera’s convoluted plot and went along with it. Brilliant, heroic, passionate—Mr. Fabiano has it all, and demonstrated that fact convincingly in Sunday’s performance.

As his surprising love interest, Salomé, young soprano Joyce El-Khoury amply demonstrated that she’s becoming one of the great, rising sopranos of our time. We first heard her sing in a performance of Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” at the 2010 edition of the late Lorin Maazel’s sadly-departed Castleton Festival where she stepped in at the last minute for an ailing colleague.

Ms. El-Khoury performed brilliantly, and that’s how we’d sum up her recent performance in Massenet’s grand opera. She traversed a surprising vocal range in this difficult role, with low notes like burnished bronze and high notes that glistened like silvery bells with plenty of nuance in between.

And, speaking of last-minute replacements, mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller stepped into the role of Herodias, again almost at the last moment. But we needn’t have worried, as Ms. Miller handled her dark, tragic role as if she’d been born to it.

As the indecisive King Herod, baritone Ricardo Rivera did well in an ungracious role, although at times he seemed to lack the power and passion of his colleagues.

In his small but crucial role as Phanuel, soothsayer and political advisor to the court, we were delighted to see Domingo-Cafritz alumnus, bass Wei Wu once again on stage. His is a strong, clear, decisive voice that—unlike the voices of many bass singers—is fully capable of singing big roles. Better yet, he can actually be heard in ensembles without being subsumed in the blend of higher voices.

The WCO orchestra was in top form, and Maestro Walker was at his enthusiastic best. As a result, WCO fans once again reveled in a phenomenally effective concert performance of an opera that many would like to hear again.

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

Coming up: WCO’s final presentation of the 2016-2017 season will be “Leonore,” an earlier version of what later became famous as Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio.” The date: March 5, 2017 at Lisner. For information and tickets, click on this WCO link.

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