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Washington Opera Stages Mindless Menotti, Rousing Rimsky

November 30, 1986|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

WASHINGTON — The nation's capital--well, most of it--was agog last month with the bliss of conspicuous cultural consumption. The local paper dubbed the suddenly fashionable phenomenon "Goya Fever."

Never mind hostage problems and clandestine negotiations with terrorists and presidential credibility crises. Washington had come up with something really exciting, something glamorous, bizarre and marvelously portentous if not pretentious.

Martin Feinstein, general director of the Washington Opera and an illustrious graduate of the Hurok school of hard hype, had found a costly coup for his company's 31st season ("Our Grandest Ever," blared the ads).

The season in progress, the longest in local history, embraces 76 performances of eight works in two Kennedy Center theaters. Nothing on the agenda, however, could compare with Feinstein's magnetic piece de resistance on Nov. 15.

Los Angeles Times Sunday December 7, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Page 63 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
In last Sunday's Calendar, a photograph was misidentified. Vyacheslav Polosov, a recent defector from Minsk, sang the leading tenor role in "The Tsar's Bride." He was photographed with Galina Vishnevskaya, who supervised the staging at the Kennedy Center.

With a little boost from assorted corporate charities, the Washington Opera had mustered a million-dollar world premiere.

Gian Carlo Menotti, the 75-year-old Italo-American who pleases the masses by cranking out painless new music that sounds very much like painless old music, had composed a painless quasi-biography of Francisco de Goya, the Spanish painter (1746-1828). More important, he had composed it expressly for the massive marble Kleenex box on the Potomac.

Joy. Rapture. Brouhaha.

Queen Sofia of Spain attended the first night, in stately person. She was lucky to get a ticket. Her entourage, direct and indirect, included distinguished American politicos, consular luminaries and the creme of the social creme , not to mention the national critical press, public-television cameras, foreign impresarios, gossip mongers and assorted international paparazzi .

Eager to get into the act, Washington galleries put on complementary Goya shows. Goya-oriented parties clogged the high-society calendar.

Despite the overwhelming distractions, the opera itself did impel some attention. The title role, after all, was not being played by any garden-variety tenor--the sort normally encountered in relatively modest D.C. No, Goya was a vehicle for none less than Placido Domingo.

Pause. Gurgle. Sigh.

Only Luciano Pavarotti could have made the conspicuous celebrants and groveling groupies more ecstatic. Pavarotti, unfortunately, isn't in the market these days for operatic premieres.

The questions raised in the advance publicity tended to slight matters related to the lyric muse in favor of more momentous issues:

Had the mysterious Duchess of Alba really been the model for Goya's two Maja paintings?

Scholars long ago decided that she had not. Some potentially lascivious legends die hard, however, and Washington didn't seem to mind.

Since the Naked Maja is one of Goya's most popular masterpieces, would the singer portraying the Duchess in the opera appear nude?

Menotti said no. It was his experience, he explained, that singers look better with their clothes on. The judgment seemed less than gracious to the lovely Victoria Vergara, who was cast as the Duchess. One had to wonder if the old bachelor knew something we didn't.

In the long run, it would have taken far more than a naked Maja to enliven the opera. "Goya" turned out to be a shameless compendium of time-dishonored cliches--the sort that can give neo-romanticism a bad name.

On second thought, forget the neo .

Menotti the librettist, moreover, had provided Menotti the composer with a silly, sprawling, stilted text that reduced the complex hero to just another amorous poseur. The operatic Goya did a lot of ardent bellowing of cheap and clumsy platitudes. Then, without warning, he turned deaf and became mentally tormented, just in time for a pretty, nostalgic death scene.

The unintentional comedy was reinforced, alas, and the verbal murk clarified by the use of English supertitles. The phrases flashed across the screen atop the proscenium told us exactly what Domingo was trying to express in his mangled diction. In this rare case, ignorance might have been bliss.

"I'm not a politician," the oddly accented, misplaced Cavaradossi sang at one crucial moment. "I am an artist. I have to paint to live. But I only live to paint."

That, believe it or not, was one of the more eloquent passages. Have we heard it somewhere before?

The audience applauded Menotti's short-winded tunes, his predictable set pieces, his kitschy harmonies and his corny dramatic maneuvers, just as it applauded his simplistic prose.

The audience also applauded the old-fashioned stock sets. It applauded the dashing Domingo, the exotic Vergara and the hard-working supporting cast. It applauded Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, who conducted as if he were dealing with real music.

Then, at last, the audience repaired to the foyer for the really important business of the evening: conspicuous dining and dancing.

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