24 Jul 2006

PHILLIPS-MATZ: Washington National Opera 1956-2006

This is a highly impressive coffee-table table book, loaded with stunning photographs of productions, singers, composers, and even our nation’s glorious capital.

Mrs. Phillips-Matz is one of America’s most talented writers on opera, who has already authored first class titles on Giuseppe Verdi, great singers such as Rosa Ponselle and Leonard Warren, and has now added a book on one of our premier opera companies to her list of accomplishments.

She starts out with a brief, but fascinating chapter on opera in Washington between 1800 and 1956. She discusses the theaters, singers and operas given. Some of the singers include the great tenor Mario, his common-law wife, Giulia Grisi, Francesco Tamagno, Enrico Caruso and many others such as Marietta Alboni, Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Luisa Tetrazzini, and Giovanni Zenatello. This is a subject that I, among others, would certainly want to know more about. Perhaps there is more, since the name of Charles Jahant keeps cropping up in statements such as “According to Charles Jahant” or “As Charles Jahant reported”. But I was unable to find a footnote, a reference, or even a bibliography to get the precise source of these references to Mr. Jahant’s work.

This history of opera in Washington is followed by a series of chapters on the current opera company, beginning with its founding by Day Thorpe, and a triumphant first night on January 31, 1957 with Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Such important world premieres as Ginastera’s Bomarzo and Beatrix Cenci were to come later. Other directors followed, including Martin Feinstein, who headed the company for a total of 16 seasons from 1979 to 1995. Finally, in Chapter III, we get to the great day, Domingo’s official inauguration as Artistic Director on Nov. 9, 1996 with Gomes’ opera Il Guarany, a work probably never before given in that city, although it had been given in both New York City and San Francisco in 1884. Phillips-Matz covers this major event in her usual fine style, providing both a brief history of the work, and key comments from reviews of the performance from several major newspapers. Later in the same chapter (III-Artistic Visionaries and Leadership) she mentions other highlights of Domingo’s tenure including Massenet’s vivid and dramatic Le Cid with Domingo singing the title role.

The next chapter (IV) appropriately entitled “Gracing the Stage”, talks about the leading ladies who had graced the WNO’s stage—the likes of Regina Resnik, Frederica von Stade, Catherine Malfitano, Veronica Villaroel, Mirella Freni, and many others. Male leads, villains and fathers are discussed in a chapter entitled “Heroes and Villains” and include a long list comprising, in addition to Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi, José Carreras, Marcello Giordani, Alan Held, Leo Nucci, Paul Plishka, and Justino Diaz among a panoply of stars. Other chapters include conductors, stage directors, set and costume designers, as well as the company’s homes in Washington. Finally, such other matters as fund raising, the company’s volunteer corps, their outreach program to the young, their young artists program, and their trips abroad are not ignored.

The mention of Carreras brings to mind that he was invited by Domingo to sing the title role of the American premiere of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s superb opera Sly, a work that Domingo later sang at the Metropolitan in New York. Since Domingo followed Sly with another long neglected late verismo opera in New York, Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, it is to be hoped that he will bring it to Washington as well. The tenor is to be complimented in the strongest terms for his repertoire choices, and I must admit to having been sorely disappointed that he was not named to a comparable position at the Metropolitan Opera. His artistic leadership is something that any major city can be as proud of as they are of his vast repertory and artistry as a singer and as a musician.

Perhaps, the most important section of all is the superb chronology in the appendix. Each production is listed together with all the dates, full cast, and an indication of whether it was a world premiere, an American premiere, or a new production.

This is truly a book that can be highly recommended.

Tom Kaufman