Bryn Terfel, Placido Domingo, Christoph Eschenbach and Olivier Messiaen create hot night in D.C.
Saturday night offered such tantalizing musical prospects in D.C. that I couldn't resist making the trip, lingering cough and all.
At 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, Washington National Opera presented the stirring Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel in a concert conducted by giga-star tenor and WNO general director Placido Domingo.
At 8 p.m., a few yards from the opera house, the National Symphony Orchestra offered Olivier Messiaen's monumental "Turangalila Symphony," conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.
Thanks to the fact that the NSO devoted the first half of its program to a discussion of the Messiaen work, I managed to catch nearly all of Terfel's performance and then all of "Turangalila."
I left both events on a high.
Terfel remains one of the most compelling vocal artists of our time. If more opera singers had his combination of musicality and audience-embracing personality, the art form would be a lot more popular.
The program, part of WNO's new Placido Domingo Celebrity Series, contained the usual assortment of chestnuts, but the delivery was anything but routine. For one thing, Terfel started off with
Assuming that's what he really did guzzle in a single gulp, you've got to hand it to him for chutzpah. You also had to admire the brilliant delivery of the aria, with plenty of ripe tone, colorful nuance and delicious humor.
Terfel had a wicked time in a showpiece from "Mefistofele," complete with piercing whistle. Excerpts from "Otello" and "Falstaff" reaffirmed what a fine Verdian Terfel is, while selections from "Porgy and Bess" underlined his effortless crossover ability.
He was joined in "Bess, You Is My Woman" by soprano Ana Maria Martinez, who stepped in on short notice to fill in for the indisposed Catherine Naglestad (the sopranos are currently alternating performances in WNO's "Madama Butterly" production). Martinez, I understand, learned the Gershwin music at the last possible moment, but she sang it beautifully. On her own, she also delivered an elegant account of "Vissi d'arte."
Domingo seemed to be having an awfully good time on the podium; the orchestra was in mostly strong, vivid form.
As for the NSO, that ensemble was operating on all cylinders for Messiaen's massive challenge. I was struck repeatedly by the richness of the sound, from the silken strings in the "Jardin" movement to the powerful brass in the score's most ecstatic outbursts. It was a great night for the percussion, too, not to mention the woodwinds (the clarinet solos had particular eloquence).
The guests soloists were terrific -- pianist Cedric Tiberghien, who was almost spookily unfazed by the wildest demands of the keyboard part and who summoned a great deal of color and expressive power; and ondes Martenot-player Tristan Murail, who made sure that crucial element registered tellingly.
Above all, there was Eschenbach's superb shaping of the sprawling, roughly 90-minute score. The love theme that runs through symphony was given an extra rhapsodic pulse; moments of serenity took on a remarkable glow. The explosion Eschenbach unleashed in the "Joie du sang" movement and again in the finale sounded truly rapturous.
"Turangalila" is not an everyday challenge (the NSO's only other performance of the work was 10 years ago; the Baltimore Symphony has never tackled it), and it's not everyday listening, either. But, man, is it wonderful to encounter once in a while. It puts you in a whole different place, mentally and emotionally -- almost physically, even. Eschenbach and company made this experience a peak of the season.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WNO