Nights at the Opera Reviewed

My favorite part of the social season in DC is attending the Washington National Opera's productions. Thanks to friends with season tickets, seeing an opera became one of the best ways to take a break from law school. And being at the Kennedy Center made the outings extra special--flutes of champagne, opulent, glittering lights, and a nice view of the Potomac. I especially loved this past season. The lineup was Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, Cosi fan tutte, Nabucco, and Werther. I thought I would share my favorites from this past year in anticipation of getting to see the new season.

Lucia di Lammermoor:

This bel canto opera, composed by Gaetano Donizetti, is based on Sir Walter Scott's book, The Bride of Lammermoor. The Ashtons and Ravenswoods are mortal enemies, but Lucia Ashton and Edgardo Ravenswood are secretly engaged. Lucia's brother forces her to marry a wealthier suitor so they can pay off their debts, and her emotional duress drives Lucia to madness. Her mental deterioration culminates in her stabbing the bridegroom on their wedding night. The story, based on actual events, is set in the Stuart era, and I've seen videos of many productions that stay faithful to that time period, or, alternatively, set it in other lush surroundings to emphasize the fierce passion. The production I saw was different. The director, David Alden, revived a production he previously directed, and set it in the early Victorian period, the time at which Donizetti composed. Instead of glamorous costumes and furnishings, like a recent Metropolitan Opera production, Alden emphasizes the sick, brutal tragedy of the story. Lucia and her brother Enrico are teenagers, orphans struggling to act like adults. Lucia is treated like the toys Enrico is seen playing with; her bed is in the nursery, she is under the constant supervision of her governess/confidante, and Enrico even has to dress her in her wedding gown like a doll.

I was also impressed with the set and lighting- it looks like a mix between Poe and Edward Gorey. In the playbill, I read that in the Victorian era, some doctors working in insane asylums thought that encouraging their patients to act and perform would be therapeutic. However, many people who attended these performances did so to make fun of the insane patients. The artistic team made the set look not like a lush Scottish castle, but a crumbling Victorian asylum. And in the famous mad scene, in which Lucia, stained with her husband's blood sings the famous aria, "Il dolce suono," she is singing on a stage before her wedding guests who observe as if they are audience members. Another nice touch- Donizetti originally intended for this song to be performed with the glass harmonica, though many productions use flutes instead. Alden used the harmonica, which in earlier centuries, was thought to induce madness.

This video is from a previous production, but with the same set, costumes, and artistic direction.

An interview with Alden about the Washington National Opera production.

And this is from the production I saw; as Lucia's minister and wedding guests bemoan the results of her wedding, you can see her in the corner of the stage. Sarah Coburn starred in the performance I saw; I can't quite tell if that's her in the video.

Cosi fan tutte:

Cosi fan tutte ("They all do") is one of Mozart's most popular operas. The cast is composed of characters in the tradition of commedia dell'arte-variations of the Innamorati, Colombina, and Brighella all make appearances . The subtitle of the opera is The School for Lovers, and this particular production was set in modern day Georgetown, a perfect location for the plot and characters. Don Alfonso, a cynical aging politico, makes a bet with two young hill staffers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that their fiancées, two fashion designer sisters named Fiordiligi and Dorabella, who live in a posh Georgetown townhouse, will not remain faithful to them. The staffers announce to their fiancées that they are being called up with the National Guard to serve in Afghanistan, and the two women mourn their departure with gusto (and call in the local news to report about it!). The staffers then dress up as bikers and Don Alfonso introduces them as such to Fiordiligi and Dorabella, with the intent of proving the women's fickle hearts. The production really hammed up the disguises by altering the subtitles (projected on an electronic screen above the stage) to reflect modern language and local humor. For example, the staffers-as-bikers sound like Bill and Ted, and jokes are made about the region.

While I've seen this opera set in the late 18th century, I found the modern setting to suit the purposes of the story much better. For example, I always wondered how it was seen as acceptable for two unmarried ladies to live without guardians, and how Don Alfonso, not a relative as far as I could tell, could get away with camping out at the sisters' villa with two foreign strangers in tow. This, however, is not improper in a modern setting. The director moved from the traditional message of the play--that women are unfaithful by nature and we must accept them as so-- to focusing on images, perfect for DC. The lovers are over the top in everything they do--sisters take pictures of themselves posing with their smartphones, the staffers puff out their chests for the news reporter's interview, and when the sisters marry the "bikers", they've changed from their fashionable Georgetown socialite wardrobe to studded leather jackets, chains, and miniskirts. Most interesting I thought was the character of Don Alfonso. His career as a politico gives him reason to be so jaded, and during the entire opera, he is seen wheeling shady deals on his phone while manipulating the lovers so as to win the bet. But while he should be happy for winning the bet and proving his point, he merely rips the flower from his lapel and tosses it to the floor with a hardened, resigned disdain.Why, I wonder?

In this video, there are clips of Elizabeth Futral as Fiordiligi singing "Come scoglio," Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Guglielmo singing "Donne mie, la fate a tanti," and the ensemble during Act I's finale.

I know that many people think opera is boring and stuffy, but it really isn't. Every production I've seen has been lively and flush with detail. If you're in the Washington area, you should think about attending a performance or two at the Kennedy Center. The new season will be featuring Anna BolenaDon Giovanni, Manon Lescaut, Norma, and Show Boat; more information can be found at the Washington National Opera's website,