A lion of the French Romantic tradition, Charles Gounod is popular almost solely for his sprawling operatic exploration of the Faust legend, once a nearly perennial favorite that still holds a respectable place in the standard repertoire. Apart from Faust, the composer’s weaker and less popular Roméo et Juliette is about all that remains known of his work, even to cognoscenti. But Gounod wrote ten other operas, and the first of them, Sapho, has received a rare performance by the intrepid Washington Concert Opera, a company dedicated to performing two works per season in concert at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. After a few decades of presenting operas that are relatively well known but far from popular, WCO’s more recent repertoire has veered toward the obscure. If one’s operatic appetite is piqued by Richard Strauss’s pseudo-Wagnerian Guntram, Verdi’s rarities I Masnadieri and Il Corsaro, or (later this season) Rossini’s forgotten Zelmira, this is the company to look to. The effort seems determinedly contrarian in its presentation of works that specialists have seldom heard of, and in a world in which the danger of falling into a stale curatorial custodianship is ever present.
WCO enjoys a devoted following in the nation’s capital and occupies a lauded place in its musical life. Still, one of the unavoidable questions even its staunchest supporters pose to its artistic director, Antony Walker, is how he comes to choose the obscure works that appear before them. Whim appears to play a significant role. Walker explained at a post-performance reception that Gounod’s debut opera saw the light of day thanks entirely to his long-time admiration for the title character’s seminal aria “Ô ma lyre immortelle,” a piece written for contralto voice that occasionally appears on recital programs. Otherwise, Sapho is a hard choice to defend. It failed at its 1851 premiere, disappearing after just nine performances despite a cast headed by the famous Pauline Viardot, a theatrical legend who used her behind-the-scenes influence to bring it to life. Revivals came and went, but the opera never found much traction.
One of the unavoidable questions even WCO’s staunchest supporters pose to its artistic director, Antony Walker, is how he comes to choose the obscure works that appear before them. Whim appears to play a significant role.
It is not hard to detect why. Dramatizing the eponymous poetess of ancient Greece, whose life story is barely known and almost all of whose poetry is lost, the opera places Sapho in a conventional (and entirely heterosexual) bourgeois love triangle with the devoted but callow Phaon, who is in turn coveted by his discarded ex Glycère, a woman so mean that one wonders why Phaon feels any regret. Undoubtedly influenced by Meyerbeerian extravagance, Gounod and his librettist school friend, Émile Augier, invented a political conspiracy for Glycère to use to break up the happy couple. We never learn what motivates the conspirators or what they hope to achieve, nor do we ever meet or even hear much about the despotic ruler against whom they are conspiring. In a classic case of an effect without a cause, to paraphrase Wagner’s dismissive quip about Meyerbeer, the murky conspiracy exists simply to allow Glycère to get her way. After selling her favors to Phaon’s besotted friend Pythéas to gather evidence to expose the conspirators, Glycère blackmails Sapho into forsaking Phaon so that he will flee without her. He heroically comforts himself by taking Glycère along. As they sail off with Phaon’s confederates, Sapho delivers her aria at what oddly turns out to be the very end of the opera; she then jumps off a cliff in inconsolable despair. With the exception of Sapho’s suicide aria, the music moves slowly, with ponderous meditations on subjects that are poorly drawn out, shallow conversations that go nowhere, and choruses about murder and upheaval that sound much jauntier than they should.
Serving as a vehicle for the exciting young mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, who has already appeared twice with WCO, this unbalanced work came alive despite its dramatic deficiencies. Lindsey is not the sort of contralto Gounod had in mind, and the approach differs considerably from the extant recordings one might hear from Louise Homer or Félia Litvinne. But she did adapt her smoky mezzo to deliver an astoundingly well-modulated interpretation of the aria and carried off the rest of the part’s music in a clear success, capturing high notes that might have eluded a darker voice. As Phaon, the tenor Addison Marlor displayed his gentleness of voice for a role that obviously lacks much dramatic strength. He pulled it off with extraordinarily well-practiced French diction that one rarely hears even from European singers today. The young Egyptian soprano Amina Edris was a catty and menacing Glycère. Pythéas’s less-than-noble foibles fell to the capable talents of Musa Ngqungwana. Maestro Walker led a lively performance from the WCO’s orchestra and its chorus, which has a prominent role in this opera.