- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Washington Concert Opera sprang a surprise treat Sunday on its near-capacity audience at Lisner Auditorium. Everyone knew what the scheduled opera was: Saverio Mercadante’s “Il Giuramento” (“The Oath”), first performed in 1837. But the composer — a bridge between Rossini and Verdi — is almost forgotten, and it’s very likely that no one in the audience had ever heard a note of this opera before.

The surprise? The opera was action-packed, loaded with great music and stirring choruses, and its showy arias, while not quite up to Verdi, were as romantic and enjoyable as anyone could want. On several occasions, the audience collectively gasped with astonishment and delight as the WCO galloped through the nearly three-hour work. At no time did the performance seem that long.

The opera’s twisted plot, based on Victor Hugo’s play “Angelo, Tyrant of Padua,” has an extensive back story in which the tragic heroine, Elaisa, pleads for her warrior father as he is about to be executed by an opposing general. The enemy’s young daughter intercedes, and Elaisa’s father is spared. In gratitude, she gives the young girl a locket and swears (hence, “the oath”) that she will do the same for the girl should the occasion arise. Of course, the occasion does, with tragic results for Elaisa.

Heading up WCO’s first-rate cast was coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral, whom we heard earlier this season in the Washington National Opera’s “La Traviata.” Miss Futral glided effortlessly through the composer’s complex figures, and she sang her numerous bel canto arias with an almost ethereal sweetness.

As the conflicted romantic lead, Viscardo, attracted to Elaisa but in love with Bianca, tenor James Valenti turned in a strong performance, matching Miss Futral’s bel canto qualities but also revealing considerable inner strength and virility.

As the much-put-upon Bianca — the grown-up young girl who saved Elaisa’s dad and is trapped in a miserable forced marriage to Manfredo — mezzo Krisztina Szabo sang her role beautifully and with great emotion. Her honeyed voice has an astounding range, with clean top notes and rich low notes that seemed at times to intersect with the upper range of a baritone.

Baritone Donnie Ray Albert literally dominated the stage each time he strode in from the wings as the imperious Manfredo. His is a deep, mature, well-articulated instrument that projects great power and authority. Tenor Richard Novak and mezzo Eudora Brown also were excellent in smaller roles.

Kudos as well to the WCO orchestra and chorus, which played with real gusto and visible enthusiasm under the baton of WCO Artistic Director Antony Walker, and a big hat tip to the first-chair soloists, who were superb.

WCO made a rare onstage pitch to its audience for support at this performance. Like all stressed area ensembles — including the Summer Opera, which, sadly, is on hiatus this year but is still alive — WCO could use a little help from its friends. No area musical organization is more deserving than this tough little company, which consistently returns far more fantastic performances than one could ever expect.

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