BWW Review: The Washington National Opera's WNO GALA Pays Tribute to Leonard Bernstein
As both a celebration of the Washington National Opera and a culmination of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Leonard Bernstein at 100 celebration, last weekend's Opera Gala definitely found success. While the evening had its share of disappointments (Titus Burgess of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame fell ill and was unable to perform; Patti LuPone, the top-billed artist of the evening, performed only two fairly short numbers) there was an undeniable electricity to the night. Previously, the WNO held an annual ball which, according to Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein, included neither opera nor a ball. Switching the format to one with a formal gala reception, an opera-filled performance, and elegant dinners hosted by Ambassadors and foreign dignitaries proved the Kennedy Center can still pull off some new tricks.
The festive evening commenced with a cocktail reception on the Kennedy Center's River Terrace with heavy hors d'oeuvres. Transformed into a garden landscape, guests were fully emerged into this fancy fantasy. Living statues provided soft music accompaniment for guests with calming sounds of the harp, violin, and flute mingling together to create an elegant atmosphere. While guests enjoyed the reception, there was an immense eagerness to move to the Opera House for the main event of the evening.
Honoring the centennial of Iconic American composer Leonard Bernstein's birth, the evening's program highlighted selections from West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide (currently playing at the Kennedy Center) and others. Conductor John DeMain skillfully conducted the WNO Orchestra and Chorus, breathing new life into some of Bernstein's lesser performed works. Filling in for the ill Titus Burgess, Alek Shrader performed a solid rendition of "Something's Coming" from Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story. The performance was strong but such a song, held so highly in the musical theater canon, sounds slightly off when sung with the strict precision of a trained opera singer. There's a looseness to the best performances of this particular number that is difficult to achieve when singing with such technical mastery as Mr. Shrader possesses.
Providing one of the most memorable performances of the night, soprano Kathryn Lewek brought the house down with her skillful rendition of "Glitter and be Gay" from Candide. Embracing the difficult song's wild and scattered tone, Ms. Lewek hit every note with such laser precision while never losing sight of the fact that this song is one designed to amuse and entertain. Every comedic element was highlighted thanks to her sharp timing. "Glitter and be Gay" is a surefire showstopper when performed right. Ms. Lewek's performance definitely stopped the show on Sunday night.
While her appearance may have been short-lived, Patti LuPone unsurprisingly proved the high point of the evening. Discussing her love of West Side Story and her conflict with the music ("I love all the male songs but can't sing them"), Ms. LuPone created an ingenious compromise: singing Anita and Maria's thrilling act two duet "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" as a solo. Presented in this unique way, this is the kind of song in which Ms. LuPone excels: frantic but not out of control, energetic but not manic. When she concluded, I had no deeper desire than for her to sing the song again and again-and then record it so that it lives on in perpetuity.
Considering it was a Bernstein celebration at the Kennedy Center, it was surprising (and borderline disappointing) that no selections from Bernstein's MASS were featured. After all, the piece was part of the opening celebration of the Kennedy Center in 1971. The composer's centenary celebration seemed like the perfect time to be highlighting selections of this work, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy herself, and breathing new life into the number. Sure, the initial reviews for MASS weren't entirely positive but that shouldn't lead to it being excluded entirely from such a celebratory evening. This omission would be less of an issue if MASS weren't discussed during almost every one of the remarks throughout the evening. In fact, the way the evening was structured, audience members could have easily hoped the performance would be concluding with a selection from this work. Hopefully those hopes were never too high.
As far as remarks go, the evening was led dutifully by baritone Nathan Gunn, who also performed several numbers (including an odd selection from Peter Pan which felt out of place in the evening). David Rubenstein and the WNO's Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello, also shared words about the evening and the late Bernstein. Perhaps the most important remarks of the evening, however, were provided by Jamie Bernstein, the composer's eldest daughter, whose reflections on her father were accompanied by a moving photo display projected onto the curtains of the Opera House.
The Kennedy Center took a shot in the dark to restructure an event which had been successful for them in year's past. After all, the evening is the WNO's largest fundraiser. Thankfully, their strategy seemed successful, with Gala proceeds totaling nearly $1 million. While looking to the past works of Leonard Bernstein, the WNO successfully reminded patrons that the future of opera, at least with this company, is in very capable hands.
The Washington National Opera Gala was a one-night-only celebration that took place on May 20. For tickets and information on the Opera's current performance of Candide, closing May 26, click here. To explore the upcoming 2018/19 Opera season and subscription options, click here.
Sam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.
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