- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Washington National Opera presented the first in a pair of concert performances of Pietro Mascagni’s popular short opera “Cavalleria Rusticana” Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

An attractive postscript to the 2007-08 season just ending, these performances feature renowned soloists Dolora Zajick, Salvatore Licitra and Gordon Hawkins.

Freed from the trappings of stagecraft, costuming and occasionally quirky directors, concert opera puts the orchestra onstage and the soloists upfront and personal. While lacking in spectacle, this kind of performance offers the audience a unique opportunity to hear wonderful music and fabulous singing without interference, which can lead to a deeper appreciation for the opera being performed.

Under the capable baton of Riccardo Frizza,the WNO Orchestra kicked off Sunday’s performance with rarely heard instrumental music by popular opera composers. First at bat was Giuseppe Verdi’s Overture to “Aida.” No, not the short few bars that open the revised version of that opera, but Verdi’s highly creative original overture, which the composer later dropped in favor of the more economical opening usually used today.

Good choice. The original overture is wonderful, lush symphonic music so romantic and exciting that it’s self-contained - so much so that it’s distracting as a curtain-raiser.

On the other hand, it makes for a wonderful orchestral showpiece. Maestro Frizza and the orchestra made the most of their opportunity, and the ensemble has rarely sounded better.

Following Verdi, the ensemble performed the sprightly overture to Mascagni’s “Le Maschere” (“The Masks”), an opera based on traditional commedia dell’arte characters and situations.

As a change of pace, the Mascagni overture was followed by Giacomo Puccini’s somber “Crisantemi” for string orchestra. The concert’s first half was rounded out by a splendid performance of the Prelude and Witches’ Dance from the composer’s first opera, “Le Villi” (“The Fairies”).

The second half of the program was devoted to the main event, Mascagni’s one-act “Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Chivalry”), the short masterpiece for which he usually is remembered. Pivoting around its fabulously ironic Easter hymn for soloists and chorus and anchored by a down-and-dirty naturalistic plot, “Cavalleria” is loaded with wonderful solo opportunities for great singers, just like the ones WNO signed for these performances.

As the much-put-upon Santuzza, soprano Dolora Zajick was nothing short of phenomenal, singing with great emotional intensity coupled with a fine dramatic sense. As her faithless lover, the impulsive Turridu, popular tenor Salvatore Licitra demonstrated the power and skills that have carried him into the ranks of today’s most in-demand soloists, though at times his delivery seemed somewhat strained at high volume.

As the wronged husband, Alfio, versatile baritone Gordon Hawkins - who will return next season as Alberich in “Siegfried” - showcased the vocal authority and power that are rapidly making him a WNO audience favorite.

In supporting roles, mezzos Madeleine Gray (Mamma Lucia) and Leslie Mutchler (Lola) ably rounded out a fine cast.

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WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (concert version)

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