Lindsey triumphs in U.S. debut of Gounod’s “Sapho” at Washington Concert Opera

November 20, 2018
By Charles T. Downey

Kate Lindsey is congratulated by Washington Concert Opera conductor Antony Walker following Sunday’s performance of Gounod’s “Sapho” at LIsner Auditorium. Photo: Don Lassell

The lion’s share of Charles Gounod’s operas no longer see the stage. Washington Concert Opera showed that at least one of his works is unjustly neglected, with the U.S. premiere of the French composer’s first opera, Sapho. 

Artistic director Antony Walker revealed this forgotten piece, presented in its original 1851 form, to be a many-faceted gem with Sunday night’s performance at Lisner Auditorium.

Émile Augier’s libretto follows the final, fanciful chapter of the Greek poet’s life. The muse of Lesbos is infatuated with a man named Phaon, who is also in love with a beauty named Glycère. Sapho’s victory in the singing competition at the Olympian Games seals her triumph over Phaon’s heart. Jealous and spiteful, Glycère threatens to reveal Phaon’s role in a conspiracy to kill the tyrannical ruler of Lesbos. Sapho lets Phaon depart, in order to save him from death. When Glycère leaves with him, Sapho throws herself from a cliff into the sea.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey delivered another triumphant performance with WCO in the title role of this unjustly neglected opera. The Richmond native responded beautifully to the vocal demands of the character, created for and premiered by Pauline Viardot, whose participation  gave Gounod the break needed to bring his first opera to the stage. In the gorgeous slow part of her competition aria in Act I (“Héro sur la tour solitaire”), Lindsey purred in sumptuous legato phrasing shadowed by harp and flute.

Lindsey had a few opportunities for her remarkable vocal agility to shine, but more notably she achieved a quiet musical dignity, with warm fluidity and power throughout the range. In the staggering conclusion of Act III, she radiated angelic beatitude when she responds to Phaon’s curses with benevolent forgiveness (“Sois béni”). Her top notes—and the role calls for quite a few of them—rang out with amplitude and clarity, making her final aria (“Ô ma lyre immortelle”) a dramatic tour-de-force.

Soprano Amina Edris made a smashing company debut as the viperous Glycère, for whom Gounod took advantage of the acid side of the soprano voice to characterize a villain. She deployed laser precision in vaulted runs upward and pointed high notes to spit venom at her rival. 

Caught between them was tenor Addison Marlor, a pliable, dulcet voice suited to the somewhat clueless character of Phaon, especially plangent in his Act III aria “O jours heureux.”

Brian Vu’s stentorian, ramrod-straight baritone admirably filled out the role of Alcée, loser to Sapho in the song contest and instigator of the plot to murder Pittacus and free Lesbos. (The hot-blooded revolutionary fervor in the opera reflected the era of the Second Republic, established in the wake of the overthrow of the July Monarchy in 1848.) 

Bass Musa Ngqungwana was honey-smooth as Pythéas, easily seduced when Glycère leads him by the nose to betray the assassination plot. Tenor Matthew Hill had a pleasing turn as the voice of the goatherd, heard in an idyllic aria in Act III, which introduces Sapho’s suicide scene. 

The WCO Chorus, ably prepared by David Hanlon, contributed powerfully to the large scenes, with the women a particular pleasure to hear in their echoes of Sapho. Antony Walker led the WCO Orchestra with lively gestures and an authoritative knowledge of the score; the musicians responded well, except for a prominent early violin entrance in Act II and some sour intonation in the woodwinds.

Although it was his first opera, Gounod was in his thirties and his accomplishment as a composer is manifest throughout the score. Triple invocations of the song competitors, answered by triadic calls in the orchestra, are reminiscent of the Masonic music in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. There are a few duds among the musical riches but given the work’s melodic invention and harmonic variety, the opera’s lack of success remains a mystery. Some enterprising company should give Kate Lindsey a chance to perform the role on the stage.

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