PHILLIPS-MATZ: Washington National Opera 1956-2006

Mrs. Phillips-Matz is one of America’s most talented writers on
opera, who has already authored first class titles on Giuseppe Verdi, great
singers such as Rosa Ponselle and Leonard Warren, and has now added a book on
one of our premier opera companies to her list of accomplishments.

She starts out with a brief, but fascinating chapter on opera in
Washington between 1800 and 1956. She discusses the theaters, singers and
operas given. Some of the singers include the great tenor Mario, his
common-law wife, Giulia Grisi, Francesco Tamagno, Enrico Caruso and many
others such as Marietta Alboni, Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, Luisa Tetrazzini,
and Giovanni Zenatello. This is a subject that I, among others, would
certainly want to know more about. Perhaps there is more, since the name of
Charles Jahant keeps cropping up in statements such as “According to
Charles Jahant” or “As Charles Jahant reported”. But I was
unable to find a footnote, a reference, or even a bibliography to get the
precise source of these references to Mr. Jahant’s work.

This history of opera in Washington is followed by a series of chapters on
the current opera company, beginning with its founding by Day Thorpe, and a
triumphant first night on January 31, 1957 with Mozart’s Abduction
from the Seraglio
. Such important world premieres as Ginastera’s
Bomarzo and Beatrix Cenci were to come later. Other directors followed,
including Martin Feinstein, who headed the company for a total of 16 seasons
from 1979 to 1995. Finally, in Chapter III, we get to the great day,
Domingo’s official inauguration as Artistic Director on Nov. 9, 1996
with Gomes’ opera Il Guarany, a work probably never before
given in that city, although it had been given in both New York City and San
Francisco in 1884. Phillips-Matz covers this major event in her usual fine
style, providing both a brief history of the work, and key comments from
reviews of the performance from several major newspapers. Later in the same
chapter (III-Artistic Visionaries and Leadership) she mentions other
highlights of Domingo’s tenure including Massenet’s vivid and
dramatic Le Cid with Domingo singing the title role.

The next chapter (IV) appropriately entitled “Gracing the
Stage”, talks about the leading ladies who had graced the WNO’s
stage—the likes of Regina Resnik, Frederica von Stade, Catherine
Malfitano, Veronica Villaroel, Mirella Freni, and many others. Male leads,
villains and fathers are discussed in a chapter entitled “Heroes and
Villains” and include a long list comprising, in addition to Domingo,
Carlo Bergonzi, JosÈ Carreras, Marcello Giordani, Alan Held, Leo Nucci, Paul
Plishka, and Justino Diaz among a panoply of stars. Other chapters include
conductors, stage directors, set and costume designers, as well as the
company’s homes in Washington. Finally, such other matters as fund
raising, the company’s volunteer corps, their outreach program to the
young, their young artists program, and their trips abroad are not

The mention of Carreras brings to mind that he was invited by Domingo to
sing the title role of the American premiere of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s
superb opera Sly, a work that Domingo later sang at the Metropolitan
in New York. Since Domingo followed Sly with another long neglected
late verismo opera in New York, Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de
, it is to be hoped that he will bring it to Washington as well.
The tenor is to be complimented in the strongest terms for his repertoire
choices, and I must admit to having been sorely disappointed that he was not
named to a comparable position at the Metropolitan Opera. His artistic
leadership is something that any major city can be as proud of as they are of
his vast repertory and artistry as a singer and as a musician.

Perhaps, the most important section of all is the superb chronology in the
appendix. Each production is listed together with all the dates, full cast,
and an indication of whether it was a world premiere, an American premiere,
or a new production.

This is truly a book that can be highly recommended.

Tom Kaufman

image_description=Mary Jane Phillips-Matz: Washington National Opera 1956-2006
product_title=Mary Jane Phillips-Matz: Washington National Opera 1956-2006
product_by=Washington National Opera, Washington D.C., 2006, 219 pages.
price=$25.00 (softcover)