With unfunny libretto and barren score, new Fairouz opera takes the fun out of tyranny 

Sat Jan 14, 2017 at 3:26 pm
Allegra De Vita as the First Lady in Mohammed Fairouz's opera "The Dictator's Wife." Photo: Scott Suchman

Allegra De Vita as the First Lady in Mohammed Fairouz’s opera “The Dictator’s Wife.” Photo: Scott Suchman

Washington National Opera has put considerable resources into its American Opera Initiative. Since its first productions in 2012, this program devoted to the advancement of new opera composers and librettists has produced three new twenty-minute operas each year and some hour-length ones.

For this year’s longer work, WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello commissioned The Dictator’s Wife, a new opera by American composer Mohammed Fairouz, heard in its world premiere Friday night. Given the burgeoning number of promising young opera composers out there, it is a shame that such a third-rate, simplistic, dramatically inert work as this received such recognition.

Fairouz is much in favor at the moment. He premiered his first opera, Sumeida’s Song, at New York’s Prototype Festival in 2013, with a recording released by Bridge Records. In addition to the WNO commission,his opera The New Prince, inspired by the works of Machiavelli, debuts at the Dutch National Opera later this year and Bhutto, an opera on the lives of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, at the Pittsburgh Opera next year. In addition to his prolific composing, Fairouz also makes contributions as a journalist and foreign policy analyst.

The story opens with the title character fretting about the autocratic nation ruled by her husband crumbling around her, while the dictator has locked himself in the bathroom. It is a premise that seems full of comic potential, and topical for many on the cusp of the Trump era in the United States.

But librettist Mohammed Hanif draws surprisingly little fun from the situation. There is more crass language than heard in any opera in recent memory, but cheap vulgarity is no substitute for comedy. Leaden jokes got some laughs early on, but as the evening wore on the audience grew tellingly silent. One can laugh only so many times at the idea that the three protester characters are so poor that they smell bad.

Mezzo-soprano Allegra de Vita deployed a well-rounded, sumptuous voice in the title role, supremely confident in silk gown and heels (costumes by Lynly A. Saunders). The dictator, referred to humorously as Himself, never appears, for reasons that are strongly hinted at early on but ultimately revealed only at the end, as librettist and composer searched fruitlessly for a climax..

Other singers from WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program serve as foils for de Vita’s monologues through most of the opera. The versatile soprano Ariana Wehr was flighty and on target in the high notes for Ms. Holy, a celebrity who is allowed into the dictator’s bedroom for some reason. Baritone Hunter Enoch had a solid gravity as the Aide-de-Camp, a uniformed officer who stood in for the dictator during one of de Vita’s solos.

Three protesters appeared periodically throughout the piece, for comic relief, one hoped, in a work that billed itself as a satire, but their lines were not funny in any way. Talented mezzo-soprano Leah Hawkins offered to sell her children for food, light tenor Rexford Tester demanded cheap gasoline for his car, and bass Timothy J. Bruno was in fine voice as a man whose soldier son was going to be executed for desertion. Ms. Holy, who comes in for some celebrity bashing in parallels to someone like Angelina Jolie, responds to the first protester (Hawkins) that she does not want to buy the children because she “already has a house full of them.” To the one whose son is going to be killed (Bruno) she claims he should be happy also because his son is gay, triumphantly pinning a pink triangle to his filthy coat. Ethan McSweeny’s simple production without sets was effective at setting the action.

The musical style went no deeper. Conductor Nicole Paiement had an easy time keeping the work together with a clear beat, and the musicians, crammed into the back of the stage of the Family Theater, played competently. The chamber-sized orchestration, heavy on the saxophone, could easily be transferred to a musical.

In fact, that is exactly what Fairouz said about the work in an interview for Opera News this month: “I don’t really call it an opera. I’m not sure what I call it. Maybe it’s best to just call it a play, a sung play, a lyric-theater piece, an operetta, a musical?” The harmonic vocabulary is mind-numbingly simple, with long stretches alternating between two chords, over and over. One might be tempted to call it minimalism, but that would imply a far greater melodic and textural variety than existed.

The Dictator’s Wife has one more performance 2 p.m. Sunday. http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/OROMA; 202-467-4600.

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