The Washington National Opera has launched a new full season for live audiences this fall in its home at the Opera House of the capital’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. The regular season has started later than usual with this four-performance run of a concert program built around the themes of “artists,” “justice,” and “liberty.” Most of the repertoire connected appositely with themes of return and celebration.
The evening started with the overture to Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which was performed alongside a video montage of the construction and history of the Kennedy Center. A connection between the architecture and the music was implied, though sentiments towards this Washington landmark remain divided. Some regard it as a sacred piece of art, while others see in its severe geometry and monumental proportions a soulless mausoleum for a national leader whose remains lie elsewhere. Either way, it would be unfair to compare this unorthodox presentation of Wagner’s overture with the Metropolitan Opera’s lustrous revival of the full work running simultaneously.
The impulse toward Wagnerian grandeur continued with “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser, an opera that the Kennedy Center has not heard in decades, but the talented soprano Alexandria Shiner evoked much feeling as her character Elisabeth enthusiastically greets the Singers’ Hall of the Wartburg Castle, where a contest for her hand will take place. The tenor David Butt Philip has a long way to go before he can credibly be called a heldentenor, but he delivered Meistersinger’s “Prize Song,” another great hymn to artistic inspiration, with moving passion and appeared again with a strong performance of Florestan’s aria from Beethoven’s Fidelio.
The lyric tenor Lawrence Brownlee has overcome his earlier reputation as the type of singer a company would engage if Juan Diego Flórez were unavailable. He sounded brilliant in Orphée’s aria “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme,” a grand expression of hope in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, which ends more happily than the typical telling of the Greek myth. Brownlee expanded on the hopeful sentiments in the second half with the celebratory “Ah mes amis, quel jour de fête” from Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment and the ebullient “Asile héréditaire” from Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, both of which he delivered masterfully.
Even more impressive were the selections sung by the radiant mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who will star in Washington’s production of Carmen later this season. Her range was on full display in the contemporary composer Jeanine Tesori’s song “The Girl in 14G,” originally written for Kristin Chenoweth. Leonard’s lithe delivery and tight diction also illuminated the character Composer’s sung monologue celebrating the holiness of music in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
Later, in the section titled “Liberty,” there was irony in programming Carmen’s final duet, with Leonard playing the title character and Philip playing Don José, her jilted lover. Carmen’s cries for “Liberté” will inevitably ring hollow when her throat is slashed, but it was nevertheless a treat to have a preview of Leonard’s Carmen.
It was similarly ironic to include the trio from Act II of Les contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach, which has the fatal refrain “Tu ne chanteras plus” (You will not sing anymore). Antonia, the main character in this section of the opera, suffers from a respiratory illness and is encouraged by a quack doctor to sing until she dies. Antonia’s part was sung gorgeously by the bubbly soprano Pretty Yende, who was joined by the mezzo Rehanna Thelwell, who played Antonia’s mother, and the stentorian bass Christian Van Horn, who played Doctor Miracle. Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata also suffers and eventually dies from a respiratory illness; Yende sang the happier “Sempre libera” with sparkling coloratura and an irresistible embrace of pleasure. Perhaps one should dwell on the happier moments in art as well as in life, but Van Horn’s fine rendering of Banquo’s death-presaging aria from Verdi’s Macbeth, the role in which he starred in the opening of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new season, made it hard to escape his character’s sense of doom.
Mixed in with the musical selections were tributes to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong opera fan who frequently attended musical events in Washington. In her late-life celebrity, she often received standing ovations upon entering the hall, which I never saw her encourage or acknowledge in my years of attendance. In addition to chronicling her special relationship with the company, the company announced that her collection of musical memorabilia, including her piano, has been donated to Washington National and that a rehearsal studio will be named in her honor. The family of her late friend and Supreme Court colleague Antonin Scalia has also donated musical memorabilia in Ginsburg’s honor.
There were a few logistical flubs. The program was only accessible via QR code, despite the Kennedy Center’s poor mobile-phone reception, the trouble many operagoers have with this system, and the relatively large number of elite Washingtonians who pride themselves on not owning a mobile phone at all.
The Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein thanked many people who played a role in permitting the evening to happen, not only at the opera company but also in the government and its scientific agencies. Yet he made no mention of the president under whose leadership three vaccines were produced and distributed or of the congressional leaders who approved sizable financial assistance to keep the Kennedy Center alive amid eighteen months of inactivity. These omissions came across as partisan and even self-defeating at a time when the battered arts community should appeal to the widest possible constituencies for potential support.
At the end of the concert, it was a bit strange to rise en masse for a standing ovation after the finale from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, a paean to freedom, and to realize that we all remained masked.