Sunday, January 30, 2005

“Democracy” — the opera, that is —came and went last weekend in its world-premiere performances by the Washington National Opera at Lisner Auditorium.

Based on two novels penned by late-19th-century writer and historian Henry Adams and composed by Scott Wheeler on a libretto by Romulus Linney, the new work sparkled with a high-energy performance by its young cast, crisply directed by John Pascoe.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase the words of Abraham Lincoln — whose image loomed large as a backdrop to this production — the world will little note nor long remember what they did here. After a promising first act, “Democracy” proved less an American comedy than an American joke.

In Mr. Wheeler’s update, widow and socialite Madeleine Lee decides to move from New York to Washington to change her social milieu and learn how the country works. She is romanced by an opportunistic Midwestern senator, Silas P. Raitcliffe, who is destined to serve in the Cabinet of cigar-chomping President Ulysses S. Grant. But she’s shocked by Washington’s corruption — an odd reaction from a wealthy refugee from Boss Tweed’s sleazy Manhattan.

Meanwhile, feminist photographer Esther Dudley, daughter of a Supreme Court justice and, like most of her family, hostile toward organized religion, inexplicably falls in love with a charismatic Episcopal priest, the Rev. Stephen Hazard.

After much smoke-filled politicking, both ladies figure they’re better off without Washington or their unenlightened suitors. They decamp to a more “tolerant” Europe with the discreetly homosexual Bulgarian ambassador,Baron Jacobi — who also serves as the opera’s narrator — as their guide. The denouement would seem to prove that, in Henry Adams’ own words, “Men are creatures made for women to dispose of.”

Act I of “Democracy” showed great promise. The party scenes were peppered with amusing japes at Washington’s surface niceties and habitual backstabbing. The music unfolded in a pleasant modernist-verismo vein, with sung speeches melding seamlessly with the orchestra’s Copland-esque fabric.

But things got downright nasty in Act II as comedy disappeared and moralizing took center stage. We learned that men are always selfish, women are always enlightened, and the “democratic” United States is just as corrupt as Europe and a whole lot less fun. The women unloaded with sexually explicit feminist diatribes worthy of Gloria Steinem. The music bogged down with high-decibel tone clusters right from the opening curtain, with an Episcopal congregation chanting hymns that sounded more like Black Sabbath incantations than songs of praise.

Intriguingly, the best part of the production was not the piece itself, but the real polish and talent of the young singers who have worked with Placido Domingo’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Standouts were tenor Matthew Wolff as Reverend Hazard, baritone Lee Poulis (Raitcliffe), mezzo Keri Alkema (Mrs. Lee), soprano Amanda Squitieri (Esther) and soprano Jessica Swink (Essy). The company should be justly proud of their accomplishments. Soprano Christina Marcos also did nicely in a small cameo as Julia Grant.

The cast was buttressed by fine performances from veteran singers, including baritone William Parcher (President Grant), mezzo Kyle Engler (outstanding as Lydia Dudley, an acid-tongued clone of the feisty Alice Roosevelt-Longworth) and tenor Robert Baker, who gave the role of the villainous, oily-tongued Jacobi convincing heft.

Kudos, too for the delightfully polished performance given by the George Washington University Chamber Choir and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, all under the baton of Anne Manson — who kept the whole vehicle together with remarkable poise and precision.

In the end, though, “Democracy’s” musically clunky second act and its darkly rejectionist view of the United States are going to limit its future appeal.


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