Opera opens with broodish ‘Bluebeard’

The Washington National Opera opened its 2006-2007 season on Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House with an unusual pairing of one-act operas.

The evening began with Bela Bartok’s infrequently heard “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” which was followed by Giacomo Puccini’s beloved comic opera, “Gianni Schicchi.” The twin bill brought back to town two of Washington’s favorite soloists, devilish bass-baritone Samuel Ramey and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a D.C. native. Giovanni Reggioli, subbing for the company’s ailing music director, Heinz Fricke, conducted both operas.

William Friedkin, the Hollywood film director with a longstanding connection to the Washington area, directed both operas with a skillful and subtle hand. His direction of “The Exorcist” in the early 1970s indelibly etched Georgetown and its environs into the national consciousness.

“The Exorcist” is usually regarded as a horror film, but Mr. Friedkin regards it more as a psychological study of the darker aspects of the soul. With powerful dramatic effect, he brought this point of view to bear in his direction of Bartok’s “Bluebeard,” and even, to some extent, to the much lighter-textured “Gianni Schicchi.”

As a psychodrama, Bartok’s short opera is static and short on physical drama, which is perhaps why the work, with its distinctly colorful yet brooding score, is so rarely performed. But Mr. Friedkin clearly understands what is going on underneath in this drama of the mind. Aided by two veteran actor-singers — Mr. Ramey as Duke Bluebeard and Miss Graves as Judith — the three team up to imbue the work with psychological passion, focusing on a dark and brooding spirit whose grim secrets are best left unexplored.

Indeed, in this production, it is Bluebeard who is the fearful one — fearful of discovery — while Judith, as an eager new bride, forthrightly demands to know absolutely everything about the man she has just married, even though it becomes increasingly obvious to her what this may mean.

Mr. Ramey and Miss Graves, both of whom performed the same roles for Mr. Friedkin in the Los Angeles Opera production a few seasons back, treat the audience to a brilliantly acted and sung tour-de-force in its current incarnation. Their distinctive, elegant interpretation is probably the best “Bluebeard” anyone is likely to see.

Mr. Ramey returned after the intermission to star as Puccini’s rakish anti-hero, Gianni Schicchi. A cunning peasant, Schicchi intervenes to help — and defraud — an undeserving family of fatuous, idle-rich buffoons by rewriting the will of their recently deceased patriarch, who has thoughtlessly gifted all his wealth and lands to a monastery. It was a delight to see Mr. Ramey excel in a rare comic role, and more amusing still to see some of the imagery from the Bartok float in for a short reprise.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ramey’s supporting cast was not at the top of their game Saturday night. They seemed unsure of their roles and were not very convincing, even though they largely portrayed stock commedia dell’arte types. Young soprano Amanda Squitieri did sing the opera’s signature aria, “O Mio Babbino Caro” (roughly, “Oh, My Dearest Daddy”) quite sweetly, and mezzo Elizabeth Bishop was suitably nasty as the class-conscious Zita.

But the voice of tenor Antonio Gandia, as the romantic lead, Rinuccio, seemed lighter than air, barely holding its own in this rather noisy, funny little opera. The rest of the singers milled about, seemingly confused and with very little in the way of character delineation.

***1/2

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Sept. 20, 28, Oct. 3, at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 25, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m.; and Oct. 1 at 2 p.m.

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