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Sinfonias and Sicilianas

Washington National Opera
05/25/2008 -  and May 30
Giuseppe Verdi: Aida, Overture (Original Version)
Pietro Mascagni: Le Maschere, Overture
Giacomo Puccini: Crisantemi, for String Orchestra – Le Villi, Prelude and “La Tregenda”
Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana

Salvatore Licitra (Turiddu), Dolora Zajick (Santuzza), Madeleine Gray (Mamma Lucia), Gordon Hawkins (Alfio), Leslie Mutchler (Lola), Alia Waheed (Paesana)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Steven Gathman (Chorus Master), Riccardo Frizza (Conductor)
Laura Dowling (Lighting Design), Laura R. Krause (Stage Manager), Francis Rizzo (Supertitles)

The Washington National Opera concludes its 2007/2008 Season with two concert performances of Mascagni’s verismo classic, Cavalleria Rusticana. The opera is preceded by a short concert of unusual operatic sinfonias and rarities by familiar composers. Before I get to the specifics, let me say “right off the bat” that the opening performance I attended was one of those rare afternoons at the opera when absolutely everything went right! The chorus, orchestra, and conductor were simply superb. And the singers…Mamma Mia! …were, as they say, in voice to kill. This performance of Cavalleria Rusticana was super-charged and electric at every moment.

The concert began with the seldom, if ever performed, original sinfonia to Verdi’s Aida. It is a classic Italian overture in the Donizetti/Rossini style consisting of contrasting themes from the opera, concluded by a thrilling coda. Although it was the first piece on the program, it elicited many bravos from the audience, brought about as much from Maestro Frizza’s panache as from Verdi’s brilliant writing. One wonders why the composer had second thoughts about using it. Perhaps it was just too old fashioned for the very modern compositional style of Aida. Nonetheless, it was great to have it pulled from the mothballs and given an exciting performance.

The overture to Mascagni’s Le Maschere, on the other hand, a quite modern work, demonstrated the composer’s facility and originality in scoring. It captured the light-hearted gaiety of a masked ball and featured some bravura writing for the strings and solo passages in the winds. Puccini’s Crisantemi is a haunting work based on themes from his opera Manon Lescaut. Maestro Frizza put down the baton for this work and conducted with his hands in the manner of Leopold Stokowski. It was most effective.

The two short pieces from Puccini’s Le Villi also proved to be worthwhile revivals showing brilliance in the orchestration typical of Puccini’s more famous works. “La Tregenda” (The dance of the Willies) is a particularly dazzling allegro, which brought the first half of the concert to a rousing conclusion.

After a brief intermission, we returned to our seats in great anticipation of the opera. It was Dolora Zajick’s debut with the WNO and we were not disappointed. Ms. Zajick sang like a Diva on fire, unleashing full two octaves from low B in the chest voice to a chandelier cracking high B above the staff. The role of the betrayed Siciliana Santuzza erupts with full blown emotional outbursts in almost every phrase and Dolora Zajick was not about to hold back on anything. Some might have considered her delivery somewhat reckless with her many declamations in full chest voice, but her vocal abandon kept the thrills running up and down your spine. By the way, although this was a concert opera, all of the artists sang from memory and acted every moment of the score just as if it were a staged performance. The sense of drama and tragedy was maintained from beginning to end. Ms. Zajick’s portrayal was especially riveting and by turns was both poignant and thrilling. I hope she will record this role. Her rendition of the great aria “Voi lo sapete” would easily stand alongside the recorded legacy left by Milanov, Simionatto, Tebaldi, and Callas. She received a standing ovation at her curtain call.

Madeleine Gray looked every inch the Mamma Lucia, replete with the traditional Sicilian black shawl with which she covered her head. Her voice is dark-hued, plumy and rich. She used her hands in such an expressive and Italianate way to convey the text, and was most sympathetic in her scenes with Santuzza and Turiddu.

As Alfio, baritone Gordon Hawkins displayed a huge, round voice with a magnificent top. He is a splendid actor and had the audience enthralled by his strong and vengeful portrayal. It would have been nice to have had the percussion section play the characteristic mule-whip cracks (schiocchi la frustra) called for in his aria, but as everything else was so perfect, we will let that pass. His duet with Ms. Zajick (“Vendetta avro”) was one to the major highlights of the performance.

The short but crucial role of the seductress Lola was ideally cast with mezzo Leslie Mutchler. Enticingly gowned and coiffed, she was the embodiment of glamour, lust, and poison. She played her role to the hilt and sang as well as she looked.

Salvatore Licitra (aptly named, as Turiddu is the Sicilian nickname for Salvatore) is a tenor in the grand Italian lyric tradition. His voice is exactly what the role of Turiddu calls for and he sang magnificently, with great passion and gusto in all of his scenes.
The tenor begins the opera by singing, without any warm-up, a high and demanding off-stage aria in the Sicilian dialect. Mr. Licitra was certainly primed for that moment and he only got better throughout the opera. He has splendid high notes and there are many to sing in this opera. He stinted on none of them, recalling the heyday of his many predecessors like Giuseppe Di Stefano or Placido Domingo. His duet with Ms. Zajick was simply hair-raising in its intensity, as was the Brindisi and the Addio to Mamma Lucia.

I must say a few words about the WNO Chorus who sang so beautifully in the Easter sequence (“Inneggiamo al Signor”). It received the single largest ovation of the evening and was well deserved. Kudos extended to Chorus Master Steven Gathman.

What really tied this performance together and kept the electricity flowing was the energy and command of Maestro Riccardo Frizza. He was a joy to watch and had every moment completely under his control. He fully understands the verismo style and rendered this music with great nuance and intensity. I had not heard him conduct prior to this but I will certainly be looking for him next season at the MET. He is the real item!

There is one final performance on May 30. If you are in Washington and you like Italian opera, you will not want to miss it. This is something quite special.

Micaele Sparacino



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