There’s a lot to love in Wolf Trap’s “Cinderella”/“Sāvitri” double bill

Sat Jul 17, 2021 at 4:10 pm
By Jamie McCrary

Pauline Viardot composed her opera “Cendrillon” at age 83. The work was performed at Wolf Trap Opera Friday night.

Singers from Wolf Trap Opera joined their orchestral counterparts at the Filene Center on Friday night to present two memorable chamber variations on the timeless theme of love conquering all: Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon (Cinderella) and Gustav Holst’s Sāvitri.

Cendrillon was the highlight of the evening. Written for an intimate salon setting, this chamber operetta premiered in 1904, when Viardot was 83, with witty twists to Charles Perrault’s beloved fairy tale. The evil stepmother is instead a drunken stepfather, and Prince Charming is a jokester who amuses himself by swapping identities with his valet, Count Barigoule.

Soprano Shannon Jennings sang Marie (Cinderella) with clarity and feeling. Her opening aria was a deep and sonorous showcase and she brought unerring pitch and grace to the climactic high notes of her duet with Prince Charming. As Prince Charming, tenor Christopher Bozeka was Jennings’ equal, singing with warmth and accuracy. Their French was impeccable.

Alexandra Nowakowski, a soprano, excelled as La Fée (Fairy Godmother) with gorgeous, soaring musical lines and crisp French pronunciation. As Marie’s stepsisters, Mexican-born soprano Yunuet Laguna and mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp sang well, though their pitch sometimes wandered.

Other promising young singers included tenor Joseph Leppek as Count Barigoule and baritone Jonathan Bryan as Le Baron de Pictordu (Marie’s stepfather). Both singers stood out as well-trained and dynamic, with rich and balanced tones.

The program continued without intermission to Holst’s Sāvitri. Based on an episode from the Indian Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, the one-act chamber opera tells the story of Sāvitri, who confronts Death in a battle of wits for the life of her beloved husband.

Holst (1874-1934) is best known for his orchestral suite The Planets but composed several short operas and wrote Sāvitri to be “performed in open air.”

When Death comes for Sāvitri’s husband, the woodsman Satyavān, he also grants Sāvitri, who is in utter distress, one boon — provided it’s not Satyavān’s survival. Sāvitri wishes for a full life — which she says won’t be possible without her husband. To keep his word, Death returns Satyavān to Sāvitri, proving that even Death is ‘Māyā,’ an illusion.

Mezzo-soprano Leia Lensing sang Sāvitri beautifully, hitting the high notes of her opening aria perfectly. Her dynamic range was secure throughout as she soared above the orchestra in lamentation of Death’s approach.

Segueing from Prince Charming to Satyavān, Bozeka did well in his second turn of the evening, singing with precise pitch and tone. As he awaited Death’s arrival, his duet with Lensing was chilling in its low, dark contrast to Lensing’s bright timbre.

The real highlight, however, was bass-baritone Calvin Griffin as Death. With a controlled and resonant vibrato, Griffin was a shudder-inducing delight on stage and as a disembodied offstage voice. He sang with a depth and timbre unmatched by his castmates.

Members of Wolf Trap Opera Company’s Studio Artists program sang the Sāvitri Chorus of Female Voices, providing a haunting and well-tuned drone effect to underlie the music.

Kelly Kuo led another strong performance by the Wolf Trap Orchestra, who played with ease and accuracy. In Cendrillon, Kuo was conducting an arrangement by Washington, D.C. composer David Hanlon. Director Amanda Consol conjured mystery and atmosphere for Sāvitri with fog in the opening, and simple, Indian-style costumes. This matched her straightforward, era-tailored approach in Cendrillon.

Wolf Trap Opera Artists and Alumni returns with the National Symphony Orchestra under conductor Christopher Allen, 8 p.m. July 23. 

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