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.
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.
The New York Times called the opera "a rather stupefying exercise in banality." The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that seats for this "immediately forgettable" opus cost up to $500, and found that "$500 too much." The Wall Street Journal labeled the score "airplane music." The Chicago Tribune remained as underwhelmed as the Los Angeles Times.
But the raving Washington Post critic called the opera "probing, visually spectacular, sometimes emotionally harrowing." He was suffering, no doubt, from a chronic if not terminal case of "Goya Fever."
The afternoon after the glitzy premiere, one returned to the opera house with heightened trepidation. The attraction this time was "The Tsar's Bride" by Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov. Written in 1899, it had not been performed in America for some 50 years.
Although the opera remains popular in the Soviet Union, Western authorities have never treated it kindly.
"Full of typically Russian inconsistencies and incomprehensibilities," laments one open mind ("The Encyclopedia of Recorded Opera").
"Its only value lies in those melodies that are based on popular Russian songs," gripes another ("The Simon & Schuster Book of the Opera").
"Russian folk tunes with a dash of Bizet," says a third ("The World of Opera").
Washington revealed "The Tsar's Bride" as a marvelously melodic, colorful, multifaceted, ultimately poignant genre piece that, if callously treated, could lose everything in geographic translation.
It tells a complex, archaic tale of love and jealousy, revenge and death, love potions and poisons, intimate yearnings and formal folk rituals in the picturesque never-never land defined by the Russia of Ivan the Terrible.
Yet it deals sensitively, and persuasively, in basic emotions. It makes telling use of period devices, exults in well-set lyrical flights contrasted with violent dramatic strife, and rises to splendid, massive climaxes.
The Washington production, a collaboration with the Monte Carlo Opera, must be the most persuasive thing of its kind this side of the Bolshoi. In fact, it looks very much like a compact version of the lavish Moscow product.
Galina Vishnevskaya, long admired in the Soviet Union and on records for her portrayal of the title role, was engaged to supervise the staging in the best post-Moralev manner. Mstislav Rostropovich, her husband, abandoned his podium next door at the National Symphony long enough to enforce the right soulful spirit in the pit. Zack Brown created lavish picture-book sets and costumes that look suspiciously like those designed in 1966 by Fedorovsky and Fedorovskaya for the Bolshoi.
The cast could not be imported from Moscow. Nevertheless, Feinstein & Co. did manage to find an American soprano, a Ukrainian tenor, a Bulgarian baritone and a Romanian mezzo-soprano who could bring vitality as well as honor to the fragile Russian conventions.
The result was a triumph of style and a reassuring confirmation of old-fashioned musico-dramatic values. The Washington stage may have been a bit small for the moments of grandeur and pageantry. The modest orchestra may have been hard put to produce the throbbing resonance demanded by authenticity. Still, the tone invariably seemed right.
Elizabeth Knighton of the New York City Opera portrayed Marfa, the merchant's unhappy daughter chosen from 2,000 candidates to be the Tsar's bride. She sang with radiant expression and purity of tone, conveyed aching nostalgia in her great monologue and simple pathos in the terminal agonies of her mad scene.
Vyacheslav Polosov, a defector from the Minsk Opera, sang Lykov, the boyar who loves Marfa and loses her to the absent but patently terrible Ivan. The tenor introduced a sympathetic stage persona and a big, bright lyric sound that rose easily to clarion climaxes.
Ivan Konsulov of Varna, Bulgaria, was Griaznoi, the passionate but unprincipled Oprichnik who seeks in vain to win Marfa from Lykov--and from the Tsar--with the aid of a love potion. He easily made up with swaggering authority and dramatic intensity for what he lacked in sheer vocal force.
Cleopatra Ciurca, the mezzo-soprano from Bucharest who had seemed so primitive in the San Francisco Opera "Adriana Lecouvreur," exuded vocal suavity and theatrical passion as Lyubasha. She, in case you are trying to unravel the wondrously melodramatic plot, is Griaznoi's mistress, the woman who gives herself to a nasty German physician in return for poison to do away with her rival.
The strong supporting cast was dominated by two basses: young Stephen Dupont as Marfa's sonorous, dignified, white-bearded papa; and the veteran Arnold Voketaitis as the overbearing Oprichnik overlord.
The chorus, trained by Semyon Vekshtein, made a mighty noise in the victorious "Slava" outbursts familiar from such disparate sources as Beethoven's second "Rasumovsky" quartet, a Bernstein fanfare and the "Boris Godunov" coronation.
The supertitles by Francis Rizzo inexorably drew attention from stage and pit, as all supertitles must. In this exotic case, however, the momentary distraction seemed worthwhile.
Now that Washington has shown the way, one trusts the opera will not disappear from American houses for another half century. It is time for a Rimsky revival.