- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2007

Live theater, symphony and opera are always full of surprises, good and bad. As the current season winds down, one of the good surprises showed up almost without warning Thursday evening at the Music Center at Strathmore as Washington National Opera General Director Placido Domingo hauled some of his up-and-coming young singers, the WNO orchestra and a few current “Macbeth” cast members to the Maryland suburbs for a concert program of opera favorites.

Although the WNO’s final program wasn’t finalized until about two weeks ago, according to a Strathmore spokesperson, that didn’t keep tickets to the event from selling like hot cakes.

Pent-up demand for opera in Bethesda? Who knew?

Conducted by maestro Domingo, the program was a spectacular treat for anyone fortunate enough to hold a ticket. The orchestra, under Mr. Domingo’s baton, performed crisply and with great vigor. WNO assistant conductor Israel Gursky also conducted.

The younger soloists, many from the current crop of performers in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program — including conductor Benjamin Makino, who conducted two scenes — proved hugely talented. Also, the “Macbeth” vets uncorked a dazzling evening of selections from that opera and others, at times turning in performances dramatically superior to those they presented on the Verdi opera’s opening night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

What made this evening outstanding was the relaxed yet professional manner in which it was presented. Freed from opening-night tension, the entire ensemble seemed ready to have a good time and show off their best stuff. They did it in perhaps the company’s most polished single performance of the year.

Mr. Domingo and the orchestra set the tone for each half of the program with bright, spot-on performances of two popular overtures, the madcap overture to Rossini’s comic opera “La gazza ladra” (“The Thieving Magpie”) and Verdi’s melodramatic, nearly Wagnerian overture to his tragic opera “La Forza del Destino” (“The Force of Destiny”).

The rest of the night was devoted to unbelievably great singing. Baritone Luis Ledesma burst on the scene first with a wacky and well-sung rendition of Figaro’s immortal, bragging aria “Largo al factotum” from “The Barber of Seville.” He was followed by soprano JiYoung Lee and tenor Greg Warren, who dueled deliciously in a comic scene from Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”). More fun followed as soprano Aundi Marie Moore and mezzo Leslie Mutchler impersonated dueling alley cats in a hilarious Rossini party piece.

Other highlights included mezzo Elizabeth Bishop and soprano Paoletta Marrocu (now starring downtown as Lady Macbeth), who turned in a deeply moving performance of the reconciliation duet from Bellini’s “Norma.” Bass Vitalij Kowaljow, “Macbeth’s” terrific Banquo, took a comic turn as Don Basilio in an excerpt from “Barber.”

Miss Bishop and Mr. Ledesma sang additional arias from Donizetti and Bellini. And the first half concluded with a luminous performance of the beloved sextet from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” featuring Miss Lee, Mr. Warren and Mr. Ledesma along with tenor Yingxi Zhang, bass baritone Robert Cantrell and mezzo Magdalena Wor.

Other program highlights: Baritone Lado Ataneli delivered a memorable rendition of Macbeth’s bitter aria “Pieta, rispetto, amore” (“Kindness, respect, and love”). Mr. Ledesma and Mr. Kowaljow returned to sing a chillingly dramatic duet from Verdi’s tragic opera “Don Carlo.” Miss Moore, Miss Lee, Miss Mutchler and Miss Wor sashayed in to hatch a comic revenge on Verdi’s “Falstaff.” Miss Marrocu and Mr. Ataneli offered a tense battle of the wills between Leonora and the Count from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (“The Troubador”).

The evening concluded with most of the performers back onstage to sing the popular “Brindisi” from Verdi’s “La Traviata” as Mr. Domingo invited the audience to sing along.

At a post-performance reception for invited guests, a clearly pleased Mr. Domingo expressed his delight at the company’s enthusiastic reception at Strathmore, broadly hinting that he would seriously consider making this an annual event.

**** MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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