Menotti's `Goya,' on Washington Opera stage, heads for TV

Gian Carlo Menotti has no reason to complain about the manner in which the Washington Opera has mounted his new opera ``Goya.'' Pasquale Grossi has created a spectacular series of sets and costumes; the noted Spanish maestro Rafael Fr"uhbeck de Burgos is in charge of the score; no less a superstar than tenor Pl'acido Domingo is bringing the title role to musical life.

Unfortunately, they are all heroically wrestling with Menotti's weakest effort to date.

Happily, it should all look quite sumptuous on the PBS telecast to be aired Nov. 28 (check local listings), which coincides with the final performance of the work at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Francisco Jos'e de Goya y Lucientes came to fame as a court painter, but is best remembered for his ``majas'' paintings and his scenes of war and human suffering. Rather than give us a sense of Goya the artist, struggling to find his own identity in his turbulent world, Menotti chose to tell a tepid tale of Goya's infatuation with the powerful Duchess of Alba, who is eventually poisoned by her hated rival, the Queen of Spain.

The composer wrote his own libretto, and herein is much of the problem. Menotti has settled for a boudoir/drawing-room melodrama with generous dollops of soap opera. Then he tags on an extended-flashback final scene with Goya reliving the main events in his life. The painter finally expires, sure in the knowledge that his sexual escapades and self-perceived cowardice were excusable because he was a frail human artist.

Thus, Goya - being a pawn, not a protagonist - must sing lines like ``I serve an evil power weaving my doom'' and ``How can I save myself from my own painted dreams?'' So thinly is the character drawn by Menotti that in the hands of a less forceful presence than Domingo's, the hero might actually have faded from view altogether.

The music has all the impact of something written to meet a deadline rather than to satisfy a deep-felt need to make a personal statement. At the core of the opera are three arias for Domingo - handsome, musically impassioned moments that show off Menotti's orchestrational skills and his understanding of Domingo's special brand of ``top-shy'' tenor. The rest just sounds like filler to flesh out an evening (including two half-hour intermissions) of what is, in fact, no more than about 25 minutes of respectable Menotti.

Menotti has never stretched himself beyond the basic scene-and-confrontation format that gave him so much success in the early '50s. Here he gives us two death scenes (neither very effective), and a deaf scene, wherein the artist loses his hearing just as he is about to be named court painter (and just as the second act curtain begins to fall).

The scenes are well enough crafted, but all the theatrical tension that marked Menotti's best work has vanished. Maestro Fr"uhbeck de Burgos strove mightily to suggest some tension and epic sweep, and the orchestra responded with heroic fervor. But it is hard to bring out things that are not in the music to begin with.

Grossi's ultrarealistic sets are breathtaking, though unusually massive. One wonders, however, if they can be presented in any house that does not boast huge backstage and wing storage space. Menotti's naturalistic staging takes its cue from those sets. He has sustained a nice sense of understatement, so that nothing on stage overpowers the score.

The title role was written for Domingo, and he makes the most of it. It hardly streches him as a musician or an actor, yet he gives a performance of unexpected commitment, and fills the lush arias with imposing, ringing tones and suave delivery. He is fortunate to have opposite him a singing actress of real presence in Victoria Vergara. She commands the stage with grace and fire, and should she ever learn to use her voice properly, she would be a sensation.

Karen Huffstodt had the unfortunate assignment of portraying Queen Maria - a nonstop shrew who must grate on one's nerves in the manner of Margaret Hamilton in ``The Wizard of Oz.'' Miss Huffstodt executed her task with aplomb.

Bass Stephen Dupont, as Godoy, is too young to be adopting the bad habit of lowering his head to sing; Louis Otey made much of the bland role of Mart'in; Howard Bender's King Charles IV was suitably faceless. Credit of some sort should also go to the prompter for so audibly keeping the singers on their toes.

It is hard to imagine a future life for ``Goya,'' though the three arias could become an ingratiating concert suite for any tenor in search of music that flatters, without overtaxing, the voice.

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