Review: Wolf Trap Opera Turned 40

The anniversary gala concert for the nation’s performing arts park was hit and miss, but the biggest miss of all may have been a small audience
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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee of the Wolf Trap Opera Company. Photograph by Andrew Propp

Each summer the Wolf Trap Opera Company stages high-quality productions of major operas for its cadre of young singers. Over the years, the best of these apprentice vocalists have gone on to important careers, which is one of the best parts of attending their performances: to see and hear great talent in the making. Wolf Trap Opera took stock of its 40-year history on Wednesday night, with a gala concert of opera’s greatest hits, pairing some of this year’s new talent with some of the best who got their start in America’s National Park for the Performing Arts. Like most events of this type, it had some memorable moments among others that were less so, and it ran too long with speeches, mostly entertaining but too many in number. (At least at an awards dinner, they serve you food and wine.) If two of the scheduled singers, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and tenor Carl Tanner, had not canceled, it would have gone on even longer than three hours.

At the top of the roster was tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who brought the house down with a gutsy rendition of “Ah, mes amis!” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, those famous nine high Cs all on pitch and laser-focused. He also paired off with baritone Richard Paul Fink, heard earlier this summer as an impressive Wozzeck at Santa Fe Opera, in the famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, “Au fond du temple saint.” Bass-baritone Alan Held was a brooding, granite-solid Wotan leading the gods into Valhalla (from the end of Wagner’s Das Rheingold), as well as a charming Leporello in the catalogue aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, played with an iPad highlighting 1003, the number of the Don’s conquests in Spain. Held’s Scarpia in next month’s Tosca, at Washington National Opera, will certainly be worth hearing, as will—if the planets align correctly—the return of his Wotan in WNO’s first complete Ring cycle.

Bass Eric Owens gave a measured, affecting performance of “Ella giammai m’amo” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. By comparison to Brownlee’s outstanding performance, tenor James Valenti seemed a little covered and sometimes sagged flat, although showing an impressive vocal control mid-decrescendo to pianissimo in selections from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Mary Dunleavy produced puissant dramatic soprano tone in Violetta’s scena “Ah, fors’è lui?” from Verdi’s La Traviata, while baritone Robert Orth and soprano Emily Pulley were most effective in comic character pieces. Soprano Tracy Dahl spun a smooth legato in the cavatina “Ah, non credea” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, and in excerpts from Adriana Lecouvreur and Lakmé Denyce Graves was Denyce Graves, a little forced and leathery in tone but always dramatic. All of these assessments, mind you, are based on sound produced by amplification, which robs the ears of most of the pleasure of hearing this kind of voice in action.

The orchestra, a mixed and temporary group made up of some veterans from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and others, had as many misses as hits. An aria from Gounod’s Faust was all over the place, and it was hard to tell if some sloppy early entrances in the La Traviata scena were the fault of players or conductor Stephen Lord. The amped-up brass section, with Wagner tubas and bass trombone at full bore, lit up the instrumental conclusion of the Wagner excerpt. The worst performance of all, however, was the audience—or lack thereof—with large patches of empty space, in both the theater and the lawn, yet another indication of classical music’s woes.

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