Say what you will about Plácido Domingo’s 15-year tenure at the helm of Washington National Opera—and an awful lot has been said—there’s no getting around the fact that the über-tenor provided the company with some substantial artistic assets: his own undeniable star quality, for a start, and that of several high-profile singers whose names had not previously graced the roster. On Domingo’s watch, the WNO chorus and orchestra gained substantial ground. And the company added important works to its repertoire, right down to the close of his tenure, with the first WNO production of Iphigénie en Tauride. OK, not every cast was top-drawer; not every set design or stage direction was either (the same might possibly apply to a few other companies). And, yes, the financial side of things had its downside. Donations didn’t pour into the coffers, as many expected, even with Domingo as a draw. The inability to raise enough money to stage Götterdämmerung, leaving the company’s first Ring incomplete (the co-producer San Francisco Opera finished the project), was probably the biggest disappointment.
On balance, though, the Domingo era had enough plusses onstage to balance the minuses. And the Iphigénie was a decided plus. Gluck’s exquisite score emerged in telling detail at the kennedy center opera house (May 9), guided with an elegant, unhurried, yet never sluggish touch by William Lacey, who had the orchestra playing with considerable finesse and feeling. Patricia Racette gave a commanding performance, vocally and dramatically, in the title role. The soprano’s voice projected easily, with abundant dynamic nuance colouring the tone. The intelligence and eloquence of her singing could be felt at every turn, especially in a raptly phrased ‘O malheureuse Iphigénie’. As Oreste, Domingo sounded decades younger than his 70 years, with a burnished, baritonal quality to the sound. His acting was robust and convincing; in the vision scene, he reached a compelling high, theatrically and musically.
Shawn Mathey’s Pylade could have used a little more vocal shading, but the ardent ring in his well-focused tenor proved highly effective. As Thoas, Simone Alberghini sounded somewhat hollow at times, but he sang with a vivid edge. The rest of the soloists came from the ranks of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program and acquitted themselves ably. The women of the chorus maintained admirable smoothness of blend and beauty of tone.
Designed for Opera de Oviedo, the set by Luis Antonio Suarez placed the action in some futuristic-looking land, with a hint of the story’s ancient roots peeking through in some of Pepa Ojanguren’s mostly imaginative costumes (the chorus ladies were stuck in particularly unflattering dresses that tended to sag in the wrong places). Emilio Sagi’s direction included exaggerated, stylized gestures for most of the cast and bursts of wall-climbing (Domingo, ever the trouper, gamely participated). But, often aided by the sensitive lighting design of Eduardo Bravo, there were many striking images along the way that underlined the music’s poetic power.
The season took a lighter turn to close with Don Pasquale. James Morris tackled the title role for the first time; the occasion also marked his overdue company debut. The bass-baritone threw himself into the comic shtick (May 16), looking rather Falstaff-like in this production, which predated the action to c.1660. Vocally, Morris may not have summoned as much sound as he did in his prime Wotan days, but he negotiated the music with colourful style. He proved especially persuasive and quite affecting as he sang ‘E finita, Don Pasquale’.
Although arguments can certainly be made against the production concept of the director Leon Major and designer Allen Moyer, it was carried out logically and it seemed to animate the cast fully. Ekaterina Siurina, in particular, had quite a romp as Norina, matching her animated portrayal with a creamy, evenly-produced tone that caressed Donizetti’s melodies beguilingly. As Ernesto, Antonio Gandia revealed a promising voice with a hint of a ping; his expressive singing would have gained distinction with more dynamic variety. Dwayne Croft brought abundant personality to the role of Dr Malatesta. What he lacked in tonal richness he compensated for in technical refinement and elegant phrasing. The chorus sang brightly and, a ragged edge or two aside, the orchestra sparkled. Israel Gursky’s conducting was never short on propulsion—he charged into the overture at breakneck speed—but he proved equally generous with his spacious, rubato-tinged phrasing as the evening progressed.