By Charles T. Downey
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A decade after Deborah Voigt lost a role because of how she would look in a revealing black dress, have popular culture’s obsessions with youth and body image become the norm in the world of opera? The reaction of British critics to Tara Erraught’s performance a year ago, as Octavian in the Glyndebourne Festival’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, struck a chord around the world as taking the trend a step too far. The Irish-born mezzo-soprano’s American stage debut, in the second cast of Washington National Opera’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola on May 11, offered the chance to hear — and see — her for ourselves.
The fat-shaming critics, all men, were uncomfortably ad hominem — or ad mulierem — in their assessment of Erraught’s body, far beyond what seemed reasonably necessary to consider in terms of the believability of the character. “It’s hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman’s [Kate Royal’s] plausible lover,” wrote Andrew Clements in The Guardian. Erraught was “dumpy of stature,” with an “intractable physique” (Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph), and “has the demeanor of a scullery-maid” (Michael Church in The Independent). Most egregious was Andrew Clark in the Financial Times: “Tara Erraught’s Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat […] albeit gloriously sung.”
Those last three words rankled most of all.
In other words, those critics who bothered to address the issue of the opera singer’s voice, rather than just dismissing her as physically miscast, not only found nothing wanting in that department but thought she excelled. You can see a Rosenkavalier excerpt at right. Yes, how singers will look in close-up on the high-definition simulcast — more likely to be viewed in many cities than from a distance in the auditorium — seems to be a casting factor at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere these days.
The truth is, though, that from a seat near the midpoint of the Kennedy Center Opera House, Erraught and her first-cast counterpart, Isabel Leonard, who has made the cut for the Metropolitan Opera simulcast and will sing for the WNO’s simulcast of the opera to Nationals Park on May 16, were not that different in shape. There was just no reason to apply any of those nasty Brit-crit adjectives, which likely means that if costume designers are willing to modify their work to accommodate different body types, the problem of believability can be softened in the theater, if not on digital video in close-up.
Erraught was, if anything, more believable as the lowly drudge with a heart of gold than Leonard, who seemed more princess than pauper. Vocally, Erraught had a slow start, sounding rough, especially at the low end, and was often overpowered in the ensembles in the opening scenes. Once her instrument had warmed up, she started to hit her marks and never looked back, delivering excellent renditions of the showpieces in the second act. Leonard’s handling of the runs was more laser-precise on opening night, but Erraught ultimately had the more sumptuous tone and extended breath support, especially at the top, and when Rossini gave her long lines with some scope up there, rather than lots of divided notes, she soared.
The other surprise of the second cast was tenor David Portillo, who delivered a knockout company debut as the Prince, Don Ramiro, confirming his earlier successes in the area with Washington Concert Opera and the young artists program at Wolf Trap. He had a less covered, more forthright tone than his first-cast counterpart, Russian tenor Maxim Mironov, who in a generally pleasing performance sometimes sounded like he was singing inside a box. Compared to the reserved cipher Mironov made of the Prince, Portillo’s stronger sense of comic timing and earnest stage presence were a welcome contrast, too.
Simone Alberghini and Paolo Bordogna brought some authentic Italian buffo antics to the cast, although the latter’s abusive stepfather, sung with a disappointingly approximate sense of pitch and rhythm, was more a parody of the style than the former’s Dandini, who simply had fun hamming up the valet’s delight in playing the role of his master, the Prince. The roles of the wicked stepsisters went to talented young artists in the company’s Domingo-Cafritz program, soprano Jacqueline Echols and mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel, who made the most of their spoiled characters, without detracting from the effort of their colleagues in the many beautifully crafted ensemble numbers. As Alidoro, the Prince’s tutor, Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang provided some much-needed calm and a robust vocal presence.
The whole production was on much more solid musical ground this second night of the run, after an opening night where the rushing of the singers in fast-paced numbers had been chronically out of control. Conductor Speranza Scappucci, the first Italian woman to take the podium for the Washington National Opera, had things in closer control, with most of the opening jitters ironed out. Scappucci also accompanied the recitatives with inventive flair from a harpsichord mounted on a gigantic stand in front of her. It is more likely that these simple parts of the score, actually the work of an assistant, were played on a piano or by the lead cellist alone at the opera’s premiere in 1817, but the sound of the harpsichord went nicely with the pompous behavior of the aristocratic characters in this staging.
Spanish director Joan Font’s brightly colored production has made the rounds of operatic stages but comes to Washington for the first time. With a versatile backdrop involving a fireplace that transforms into a grand doorway and cartoon-crazy costumes (sets and costumes by Joan Guillén), the riot of color goes well with the sometimes over-the-top acting. The biggest misstep is a troupe of supernumerary mice, who are cute for a scene or two until one starts to wish the servants would put out some rat poison. The production continues through May 21 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. For information, go here.
Charles T. Downey is a freelance reviewer for the Washington Post and other publications. He is the moderator of ionarts.org, a Web site on classical music and the arts in Washington, D.C.