It's easy to find opera lovers who dismiss the present state of the art in favor of some distant "golden age." Actually, it has always been that way.
Folks who now wax nostalgic about, say, the heyday of Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli would have run into people back then saying, "You think this is great? You should have heard Ponselle and Martinelli."
And, of course, in the indisputably grand era of Caruso, you just know someone in the audience would have been going on and on about how much better it was back when Jean de Reszke was in his prime.
I mention all of this upfront so that you might think twice about calling me nuts for saying that I felt like I was in a golden age when I attended two Washington National Opera productions over the weekend at the Kennedy Center. I know some of you will still refuse to believe that any contemporary singers will ever measure up to the ones preserved on vintage recordings from all those other golden ages, but I'm holding my ground.
In Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" and, especially, Bellini's "Norma," WNO is serving up abundant, deeply satisfying vocal artistry. I'm talking about voices with honeyed tone, refined technique and unfailing stylistic taste, all the qualities that are supposed to be in short supply.
To be sure, I am not including every cast member in this. But where it counts most, these stagings deliver the goods.
In the case of "Norma," the stars are particularly well aligned.
Angela Meade, who caused a sensation in a concert version of this work at the Caramoor Festival in 2010, easily explains what all the fuss was about. This marks her first performance of the title role in a fully staged production -- a new one, designed in a somewhat antiseptic, but effective, fashion by Neil Patel and directed with a mostly sure hand by Anne Bogart.Meade was clearly born to sing the role of the Druid priestess who has broken her vows for the love of the Roman proconsul Pollione. To hear Meade spin out the famous "Casts Diva" in Act 1, pleading for peace in exquisitely sculpted phrases, is a rare, intense pleasure.
She is just as spellbinding much later when Norma, before sacrificing herself on a funeral pyre, pleads with her father, Oroveso, to protect the two children she had by Pollione. The tenderness of Meade's singing here would melt a stone; confronted with such expressive beauty, Oroveso would surely have forgiven his daughter had she confessed to two dozen un-priestess-like offspring.
The Adalgisa in this production is the terrific Dolora Zajick, who matches Meade practically note for note in terms of vocal elegance and coloratura gleam. The two blend seamlessly and exquisitely in their Act 2 duet. Even people who swear there will never be anything as exciting as Sutherland and Horne in this duet may start to waver after hearing these two.
(On Saturday, Zajick scored extra bel canto points with a mesmerizing demonstration of messa di voce, the difficult and infrequently encountered technique of producing a gradual crescendo and decrescendo on a single note.)
As Oroveso, Dmitry Belosselskiy reveals a bass with uncommon muscle and elegance. If Rafael Davila is less sensational as Pollione (hey, I said golden, not perfect), the tenor certainly has the stamina and vibrancy for the role.
Throughout, all four principals dig expressively into Bellini's exquisite melodic lines, and dig persuasively into their characters as well.
Add in the excellent chorus and the wonderfully vivid, rhythmically elastic approach of conductor Daniele Rustioni, who has the orchestra playing superbly, and WNO's "Norma" is quite the bel canto feast.
"Manon Lescaut," Puccini's first hit, features a standout performance by Patricia Racette in the title role of the shameless, 18th-century material girl who abandons a poor lover for a rich one, only to realize, too late, her folly.
In the first act, Racette deftly conveys the character's transformation from shy girl destined for the convent to a would-be nun-on-the-run, all the while singing with great color and warmth.
The soprano continues to flesh out Manon and fill out Puccini's music in richly detailed, finely nuanced fashion, culminating with superb work in the finale, when Manon meets her end in a desolate patch of America. Here Racette summons a remarkable mix of vocal power and subtlety to riveting effect. This is a first-rate artist giving her all.
The rest of the cast is not quite on the same plane. AS Des Grieux, Kamen Chanev sings sturdily and passionately, but his tone is rather dry and he tends to croon when, with laudable intentions, he tries to soften his voice at sensitive moments. Giorgio Caoduro brings considerable vocal color and vivid acting to the role of Lescaut. Jake Gardner sounds a little worn as Geronte, but achieves telling results.
The chorus is again a major asset. Philippe Auguin conducts with evident affection for the score and has the orchestra responding firmly. Director/designer John Pascoe's production looks budget-conscious, but exudes sufficient atmosphere and unfolds smoothly.
All in all, two grand and, yes, golden operatic treats that should pack the house with grateful audiences.