With the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra on strike, Washington is an opera-hungry town. Little wonder, therefore, that last night's performance of Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani" -- the second and last of two at Lisner Auditorium -- was sold out.
But this was a performance that should have been (and probably would have been) sold out in any case. It's one of Verdi's great middle-period masterpieces; it's rarely heard; and the production featured the kind of cast one might expect to hear at Milan's La Scala or the San Francisco Opera. In fact, the two principal leads -- tenor Chris Merritt as Arrigo and soprano Carol Vaness as Elena -- are the singers one hears in these roles at those places. And they were joined by singers as prominent as the bass Dimitri Kavrakos (Procida) and baritone William Stone (Monforte).
Washington Concert Opera, which operates on a shoestring budget of about $330,000, can afford a cast like this because the productions are unstaged, because they pay star singers like Vaness and Merritt for only a few days' work and because singers such as Kavrakos and Stone need an opportunity to work such roles into their repertory without exposure to the glare of a major production. Thus the Concert Opera is able to do such rarely heard (in the Baltimore-Washington area) masterpieces as Vespri" or Dvorak's "Russalka," which was performed last spring.
This performance was mostly terrific. Merritt, a Baltimore resident who will give a benefit recital for the Baltimore Opera Company next month, was in glorious voice. The tenor, who has an upper extension that has allowed him to make a specialty of such high-lying bel canto roles as Rossini's Otello, is as expres
sive and as powerful in his lower register as in his higher one. With his imposing physical stature and his relative youth (he recently turned 41), one can expect him someday to become a distinguished exponent of Verdi's Otello.
Vaness, a lyric soprano with a powerful dramatic thrust, sang beautifully with a well-focused voice and made the most of the work's coloratura possibilities. Kavrakos, in his opening aria -- the ecstatic apostrophe to his native city, "O tu, Palermo" -- created expectations that he never once disappointed. Stone, in one of the composer's famously moving portraits of a tormented father, also sang affectingly.
Stephen Crout, Washington Concert Opera's general director, did a fine job conducting the chorus and orchestra.