- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2008

Gioacchino Rossini was one lucky guy. Born in 1792, he was composing operas before he was 20. Soon he was cranking out hit after hit, many of which, like “The Barber of Seville,” remain popular to this day. He became so wealthy and famous that he decided, essentially, to retire from active composing - in his late 30s.

At age 71 and perhaps sensing he was about to confront the hereafter, he picked up his pen again to compose his oddly moving yet entertaining “Petite Messe Solennelle” - literally, a “Little Solemn Mass.” First performed in 1864 in a chamber version, it eventually was rescored for a full orchestra. The composer died four years later.

In this lifetime, at least, we’ll never know whether Rossini’s Mass passed critical muster with God and St. Peter, but the Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Placido Domingo gave Washingtonians a chance to judge it for themselves Friday and Saturday in concert at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

This enchanting pre-Thanksgiving treat was made even more attractive by the first-ever WNO appearance of popular crossover tenor Andrea Bocelli. He was joined by three excellent soloists from the company’s just-concluded production of “Carmen” - soprano Sabina Cvilak, mezzo Kate Aldrich and bass Alexander Vinogradov.

Rossini’s Mass begins with a reverential, somewhat mysterious “Kyrie” scored for orchestra and chorus, which also open the “Gloria” in broad, majestic tones. But then the revels begin as both the “Gloria” and the following “Credo,” alternating verses between the soloists and the chorus, take on decidedly Rossini-like characteristics, including the composer’s signature slam-bang codas that gallop toward operatic victory like the irresistible “William Tell” overture.

Although the concluding “Agnus Dei,” a moving duet for mezzo and chorus, ends as contemplatively as the “Kyrie” begins, Rossini’s “Petite Messe” is just about as much fun as you’ll ever have listening to a liturgical work. It’s lively, frequently surprising, and demonstrates that even after a long hiatus, the composer still was capable of growing in musical creativity.

Although WNO’s forces were a bit imprecise at the outset and the chorus could have used a bit more work on its diction, Friday’s performance was delightful in every way, loaded, paradoxically, with seriousness and wit. All four soloists were marvelous, although Mr. Bocelli at times seemed a bit overwhelmed by the power and accuracy of Mr. Vinogradov, whose larger-than-life Escamillo rocked the house in “Carmen.”

Mr. Bocelli’s part in the Mass was perhaps disappointingly small for his fans, but WNO made up for this with a pair of planned encores. Mr. Bocelli’s heartfelt rendition of Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” presented a fine opportunity for him to show off his incredibly sweet, lyric instrument, demonstrating to skeptics the charm and vocal presence that have made him a popular performing and recording sensation.

Joining him for his second encore, the passionate “Au fond du temple saint” from Georges Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers,” was Placido Domingo, who took up the baritone part. This was a genuinely magical musical moment, sublimely sung by both men, filled with transcendental emotional depth and heroism. It brought down the house, concluding a concert that was intellectually rich, musically rewarding and just plain fun.

★ ★ ★ ★

MAXIMUM RATING FOUR STARS

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