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A new opera, early Tchaikovsky symphony at the Kennedy Center

Deborah Nansteel in the premiere production of "Penny"
Deborah Nansteel in the premiere production of "Penny"(Scott Suchman /)

During a quick visit to the Kennedy Center Saturday night, I got to hear a new opera and an under-appreciated symphony by Tchaikovsky. Two hours well spent, I'd say.

In one of its most commendable moves, Washington National Opera established the American Opera Initiative a few years ago to generate new work. Specifically, 20-minute operas -- an extra challenge for composers and librettists alike -- and hour-long ones.

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The latter happen to include operas with Baltimore connections (and we can never get enough of Baltimore connections, as you know). "Approaching Ali," with music by Baltimore School for the Arts alum D.J. Sparr, was unveiled in 2013. "Penny," with a libretto by Dara Weinberg, who has a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins University, premiered over the weekend.

Weinberg's story is notable for introducing what must surely be opera's first autistic character. Penny is a young woman who withdraws into herself after a trauma. Moving in with her protective sister and not entirely trustworthy brother-in-law does not help. But Penny, who communicates at first only with moody vocalise, is gradually brought out of her shell through music.

The plot, which includes a ghost, feels forced here and there, and the denouement can be seen a mile away, but it's still effective, underlined with considerable expressive thrust by Douglas Pew's finely crafted, unabashedly conservative score. The subtle, harp-filled, Britten-esque orchestral writing that introduces and follows Penny is especially telling.

WNO gave the opera a sturdy launch with a cast largely drawn from the company's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program (and one alum).

Deborah Nansteel acted the title role with touching nuance and, when breaking out of wordless melody, showed off a promising mezzo. Soprano Kerriann Otano (Katherine), baritones Trevor Scheunemann (Gary) and James Shaffran (Raymond), bass Wei Wu (Jason), and tenor Patrick O'Halloran (Martin) likewise seemed fully caught up in the work, vocally and dramatically.

The new opera also enjoyed the benefit of deft direction (Alan Paul), set design (Daniel Conway) and lighting (A.J. Guban), not to mention a crucial asset on the podium -- Anne Manson conducted with great sensitivity. The small orchestra was mostly spot-on.

A large, thoroughly spot-on orchestra was playing elsewhere at the center. I headed from the Terrace Theatre to the Concert Hall in time for the second half of the opening program in the National Symphony's "Fantasy & Fate: Tchaikovsky Masterworks" series.

Symphony No. 1, nicknamed "Winter Dreams," is more like a nightmare for the Tchaikovsky-averse (bless their snobby little hearts). The rest of us find exceptional beauty in its effortless melodic flow and prismatic orchestration.

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The symphony strikes me as a precursor, in many ways, to Tchaikovsky's famous ballet scores, filled with the same sort of pulse, the same sort of soaring and sighing themes. The piece is not deep, but it is honest and winsome.

NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach approached the symphony not just with respect, but obvious affection. This could not have been more palpable in the Adagio, which he sculpted most eloquently, taking time to let the poetic music breathe and, in the climactic crescendo, grab. He had the trio section of the Scherzo singing, and gave the closing movement an exultant drive.

Through it all, the orchestra sounded terrific. The strings produced a remarkable glow in the first movement, matched by gorgeous, unified phrasing from the horns. The woodwind soloists at the start of the Adagio demonstrated not just technical poise, but beguiling elegance of phrase.

There were many other rewards, among them the crispness of attack in the finale's fun fugal flurries -- Tchaikosvky surely wanted his old teachers to know he had paid attention in counterpoint class.

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