WNO revives underwhelming “Lion, Unicorn, and Me” for holiday season

Sat Dec 15, 2018 at 12:18 am

Holden Browne (center) with ensemble in Washington National Opera’s “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me.” Photo: Scott Suchman

Washington National Opera continues its tradition of presenting a holiday opera for children this month. In the rotation of works, some classic and others of more recent vintage, it was time again for Jeanine Tesori’s The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me. At opening night Friday in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, this opera felt just as slender and specious as when it was premiered here in 2013.

The story, drawn from a book by British writer Jeanette Winterson, is ostensibly that of the birth of Christ. Mary and Joseph are going to Bethlehem, where she will give birth to a child. He will be important, but we never learn his name. Winterson once referred to the “God myth of the church” as “hogwash,” but the libretto, by the late J.D. McClatchy, is more banal than subversive.

Likewise, Tesori’s vanilla score is a disappointing admixture of lite jazz and music-theater tropes. Tinkling percussion and cheesy canned organ fail to lift the listener out of the mundane.

Treble Holden Browne, a veteran member of the WNO Children’s Chorus, sang the role of the Angel with cheek, plucked out of the audience shortly after the opening of Act I. His first job is to choose an animal to carry Mary to Bethlehem. Members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program took on these comprimario roles with zest, led by the flamboyant Flamingo of soprano Marlen Nahhas.

Two animals are singled out for special consideration to serve as transport. Bass Soloman Howard, a former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, returned to reprise the role of Lion. He hammed up the role of the celebrity beast, taking selfies as he entered and roaring with impressive bluster.

Soprano Alexandra Nowakowski, a current program member, was appropriately demure as the mystical Unicorn. Her entrance delighted the children in the house, a disco ball illuminating her white costume and the whole theater with sparkling flecks of light. Her coloratura exploits in the second act were a vocal highlight.

Of course, the humble Donkey wins the commission. By comparison to the Lion and Unicorn, he has the least interesting aria of the animals, but baritone Joshua Conyers made the role sympathetic and fun, even as the opera loses most of its dramatic steam in the second act. Mary and Joseph search for a place to stay in Bethlehem, with warm singing from mezzo-soprano Hannah Hagerty and tenor Alexander McKissick.

The company has done some minor renovation to the staging, as well as to the score itself, but the experience remains as unconvincing as it was five years ago. The sets (designed by Michael Yeargan) and costumes (Erik Teague) are handsome, especially the fanciful outfits for the Elk, Cat, Lion, and Hippo.

Conductor James Lowe, a specialist in musical theater, led the small pit band with a sure hand. The choral ensemble, combining the smaller solo roles and the impeccably prepared WNO Children’s Chorus, filled out the larger scenes with charming unity and poise.

The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me runs through December 16. Kylee Hope Geraci takes over the role of the Angel at both matinee performances. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600

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