Review: The Washington Concert Opera lights up the underworld with “Orphée”.

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The underworld actually sounded pretty good on Sunday night at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Credit goes to the Washington Concert Opera, who graced the venue with a concert performance of “Orphée” that alternated between enchanting and exciting.

The four-act opera, composed in 1762 by Christoph Willibald Gluck (with a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi), was rearranged by Hector Berlioz in 1859 to give the leading role to the great mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot. (The role of Orphée was originally sung by castrati and later by high tenors.)

There is a longer, more tortuous history and lineage of translations, re-translations, hybrids and adaptations of this opera and its various versions, but what mattered on Sunday (it seemed to performers and listeners alike) was the immediacy of the moment, the chance to capture the Distilling work to its essential qualities and giving it a sometimes overwhelming presence.

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My esteemed predecessor at this podium had some wise remarks about the special appeal of concert opera: “It is freer,” wrote Anne Midgette. This means it’s easier to find fantastic singers and explore lesser-known works when you don’t have to face the burden of months of rehearsals. (Next month, the WCO will present Léo Delibes’ rarely staged “Lakme.”) The “one-night-stand” standard of concert opera performances also requires a premium for a specific program or cast—though in this case, I’m sorry , that I cannot direct you to a repetition.

I would add that the concert opera format also allows an opera audience’s attention to settle down differently, attuned more closely to the music and listening together to the subtleties that are often lost behind lights, scenery and costumes. For conductor Antony Walker, the concert format also provided an opportunity to explore and highlight fine details in the score, of which there are many.

Sunday’s presentation also premiered a dance component, the duo of Washington Ballet dancers Nardia Boodoo and Andile Ndlovu. It was less a semi-staging than a kind of illustration on the edge of the music. Her performance alongside the orchestra had a simple yet calligraphic grace, at times evoking the beauty of the natural world and at other times embodying the flames consuming that beneath.

Orphée was sung by mezzo-soprano (Richmond native) Kate Lindsey, who, after a triumphant title change as Sapho, is now a WCO regular and has sung Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ei Montecchi and Leonora in Donizetti’s La Favorite. Lindsey inhabited the role with a complexity that goes beyond the reputation of a concert opera, where it’s often enough just to stand there and sing beautifully (which she did, the brilliance of her tone finding your forehead).

Exquisitely in control, Lindsey finds her place in and on the music without ever sinking beneath the surface. Her comfort level in navigating the underworld makes sense: she’s preparing to sing the dual roles of La Musica (Music) and La Speranza (Hope) in Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” at the Vienna State Opera. As Orphée, she captured the lover’s trust as well as his collapse in grief. Her “J’ai pedu mon Eurydice” was hauntingly beautiful – I felt a pang of guilt at getting such a thrill from such convincing heartbreak.

Soprano Jacquelyn Stucker made a memorable WCO debut in the role of Eurydice. Her ‘Fortune ennemie’ – in which Eurydice mistakes Orphée’s averted gaze as evidence of her infidelity – was a stirring and often shocking alchemy of despair and anger. Her duet with Lindsey (‘Viens, suis un epoux’) displayed a silvery sheen, and her celebration of eternal bliss in the Elysian fields with the chorus (‘Cet asile aimable et tranquille’) was bright, feathery and truly uplifting. The Washington Concert Opera Chorus was also strong and solid throughout the evening, led by Assistant Conductor and Chorusmaster David Hanlon.

The role of Amour – or Cupid – was sung by soprano Helen Zhibing Huang. She also gave a playful, captivating performance in her WCO debut, but her voice seemed wary. She wasn’t nearly as present as Lindsey, and I would have preferred a vision of love that evokes a little more power beneath the surface.

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The Washington Concert Opera Orchestra was in largely good form in Act I, despite some persistent intonation problems in the strings. (A side effect of an unexpectedly muggy afternoon?) Walker tightened things up and a new energy seemed to surge through the players. The playing of the oboist Fatma Daglar was a special highlight, as was the dazzling work of Nicolette Oppelt on the flute – both had their work to do.

In the end, spoiler alert, love triumphs. Amour rejoins the lovers and the chorus bids farewell. Like trips to hell and back, this one was a delight.

Washington Concert OperaLéo Delibes’ next presentation is “Lakme” on May 22 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

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