- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

The Washington Concert Opera’s avid patrons are among the District’s fiercest fans of bel canto singing. Scenery, direction? They care not one whit. It’s the beautiful singing they come to hear, and they don’t want to miss a single breath, a well-turned phrase or a spectacular bit of improvisational ornamentation.

They got plenty of the above and considerably more Sunday evening in what could only be rated a spectacular performance of Gioacchino Rossini’s “Tancredi,” an opera virtually unknown today, aside from true Rossini aficionados.

American audiences regularly feast on Rossini’s comic confections such as the always-sold-out “Barber of Seville,” but the composer wrote serious stuff, too, and “Tancredi” is in that group.

Its story line, like many in opera, is relatively forgettable. Tancredi, a long-banished heroic knight, stealthily returns to the city of Syracuse (located here in Sicily, not New York) to see if his lady love, Amenaide, is still waiting for him. Well, she was, but her father, the local leader Argirio, has just decided to marry her off to his rival, Orbazzano, to help mend some family fences. Add some treachery by Orbazzano and an attack from the Saracens, and Amenaide soon finds herself hated by all as an accused traitor — even by her beloved Tancredi — and sentenced to death.

The drama “Tancredi” originated from the pen of Voltaire, but Rossini and his librettist modified it with a relatively happy ending. Happier still is the wonderfully melodramatic music Rossini composed for the opera, which debuted in 1813.

The score for “Tancredi” is taxing, offering formidable challenges to all the singers, particularly the leads. However, the Washington Concert Opera has proved highly adept at hiring just the right experts for such roles, and this performance was no exception.

In the trouser role of Tancredi, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was sensational. Possessing Wagnerian power, tremendous vocal control and an astonishingly rich lower register, she gave her role great authority and dignity.

As Tancredi’s love interest, the very-much-put-upon Amenaide, willowy soprano Sarah Coburn demonstrated an instrument of surprising range and depth. Her coloratura ornamentation was impressive, and she attacked each note cleanly.

Lawrence Brownlee’s appearance as Argirio marked his welcome return to the company after his memorable debut as Hubert in Rossini’s equally obscure “La Donna del Lago.” The warmth, elasticity and depth of Mr. Brownlee’s voice never ceases to amaze. His attacks are precise, his command of rhythm is perfection, and every aria he sings is a treasured experience.

Admirable in the smaller roles were bass David Langan as the villainous Orbazzano, mezzo Linda Maguire as Amenaide’s loyal attendant Isaura, and Lisa Eden in another trouser role as Tancredi’s faithful servant Roggiero.

Artistic Director Antony Walker conducted his orchestra and highly capable male chorus in a splendid performance. Staged or no, the quality of the company’s presentations consistently has been as good as it gets, particularly in neglected repertoire.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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