If you will allow me a sports analogy, watching a Washington Concert Opera performance is like watching the New England Patriots play football, the best coached team in professional sports in my opinion. Every player is a competent professional with some stars in the mix, but the key is that every player does their job and does it well. On Sunday night for the American professional premiere of Sapho, every WCO player did their job, did it well, and team WCO pulled out a win for composer Charles Gounod.
Gounod had the gift. I’ve seen his Faust and Romeo and Juliet, his only two operas that get performed with any regularity. Like Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner and only a few others, Gounod had the gift. But the gifted don’t always produce a great work (the Patriots don’t always win). Even the great ones have duds. Over a couple of years of attending WCO productions, I have developed confidence in WCO’s Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker’s acumen at selecting lesser-known, but worthy operas, and an excellent cast of singers to present the work in concert. Sapho turns out to be another find. I’m not even sure that this opera couldn’t work as a fully-staged version. It has important, timeless themes and the music is marvelous; with the right singers, I’d go see it.
Sapho (1851), the opera, is a fictionalized story about the real poetess, Sappho, whose poems about love and sex became classics. She was born on the Greek Island of Lesbos around 600 BC, the time and place of this story. Her name has become associated with lesbianism; however, like so many aspects of her life, her actual sexual orientation is not known with certainty, and that is not part of this story. However, themes of love and sex and honor are the sustaining elements of the drama. In the plot by Gounod and librettist Émile Augier, a love triangle between Sapho, Phaon, and courtesan Glycère, is enmeshed with an uprising against the authoritarian ruler of Lesbos, Pittacus. The action begins at the Olympic Games where Sapho competes for the poetry prize where the poems are sung (yes, poetry competition at the Olympic games; I told you this was fiction - not that singing opera couldn’t be an Olympic event). Phaon has been struggling with his new love of Sapho and his remaining attraction to the alluring Glycère. Sapho wins both competitions. She defeats Alcée, who is attempting to incite the uprising against Pittacus; he sings about justice and liberty, and she sings about love. Phaon, who has become involved in the insurrection, chooses Sapho because of the purity of her heart and soul. Glycère goes on the offensive against her rival and proves willing to fight for Phaon; she plies useful information from his friend Pythéas using a sexual bribe, then resorts to guile and deceit to coerce Sapho into giving up Phaon in order to save his life, gloating in her victory over Sapho. Sapho declares that even in defeat, she’d rather be her than Glycère. She relinquishes Phaon to spare him but cannot bear life without him and leaps from a cliff into the sea.
This truly was an outstanding cast headed by Richmond native, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey. Ms. Lindsey is also gifted, and her extraordinary voice and professionalism were on full display in her portrayal of Sapho. Several times she hit the wow level on my ‘response to the singer’ scale. Always talented, she seems to have grown much more confident and self-assured than when I saw her in Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking. The surprise Sunday night was that she was matched in fire and determination by soprano Amina Edris playing Glycère. Ms. Edris has a voice that is to love. She sang beautifully and the confrontations between her Glycère and Ms. Lindsey’s Sapho as they fought over Phaon were exciting to behold. The three principal male singers were also standouts. Tenor Addison Marler as Phaon displayed an exquisite voice. Baritone Brian Vu as Alcée was strong and clear in portraying an insurgent. Finally, base-baritone Musa Ngqungwana added his strong voice and excellent singing to the mix as Pythéas. It was fun to see Mr. Ngqungwana again. I saw him earlier this year in Pittsburgh Opera’s Moby Dick, where he played Queequeg and made an impression as somewhat to watch. I would welcome the opportunity to hear any of these singers again. The music was also a star in this performance. Maestro Walker makes it musically engaging, but also visually interesting as well with his animated orchestrations. The music was beautiful, so listenable with its melodies and harmonies, ably aided by the chorus under the direction of Chorus Master David Hanlon.
This was Gounod’s first opera. There is an interesting backstory to this opera and to Gounod’s artistic development that was related in the pre-opera talk and an excellent earlier WCO Opera Gems lecture by Peter Russell, WCO co-founder and head of Vocal Arts DC. A superstar performer and celebrity of her day, Pauline Viardot, took an interest in Gounod. Ms. Viardot seems to have been a combination of Rene Fleming and Oprah Winfrey, with extraordinary musical ability and extraordinary clout. She made it possible for him to secure Augier as librettist and have it performed at the Paris Opera when completed, with of course, Ms. Viardot singing the lead role. It was rumored that her relationship with Gounod was more than professional and more than friendship. The choice of the classical setting with a virtuous heroine was in reaction to the excesses of Parisian grand operas in vogue at the time; also Augier was a staunch moralist, and it offered Ms. Viardot a plum role. Perhaps at least in part due to its veering away from opera currently in vogue, Sapho was not very successful at the time and has been little performed since, though even in its day, the professional critics liked it and recognized that Gounod had the gift. Mr. Russell made the point that the popularity of operas seems to wax or wane in response to the tenor of the times, noting that Romeo and Juliet is now overtaking Faust in popularity. Perhaps we will see more productions of Gounod’s Sapho.
In the two years I have been attending their performances, Washington Concert Opera has provided some of my peak opera experiences. You can add Sapho to that list. And just so you know, I am not a New England Patriots fan.
The Fan Experience: Attendance for Sapho seemed to me to be very strong, maybe in response to the appearance of Washington favorite, Kate Lindsey, or just maybe, the secret is getting out about concert opera. In two short years, I have become something of a concert opera junkie. I just find that the sound with the orchestra on the stage is superior to when it is sequestered in the pit; it also permits a larger orchestra and chorus to be used, and I love getting to hear reclaimed gems that way. WCO’s next offering will be a new venture for them. They are partnering with Wolf Trap Opera to perform Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé at the Barns of Wolf Trap on February 9 and 10. The Barns is one of my favorite places to hear opera. It is a small, cozy venue that puts you close to the singers. Food is available and drinks can be taken to your seat. Parking is plentiful and free, and it is easy in, easy out.