Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, now in its 5th year, keeps the opera flame alight at the Kennedy Center during the long winter stretch between mainstage WNO productions. With four short works on offer over the course of two nights, it is also a welcome chance to peruse how a variety of young composers are addressing the challenges of contemporary opera. 

January 13’s offering, an hour-long work entitled The Dictator’s Wife, with music by Mohammed Fairouz and a libretto by novelist Mohammed Hanif, did not make for a promising start. The scenario is centered around the complicit, long-suffering “First Lady” of an unspecified country in the grip of an authoritarian regime (the creators have encouraged reading the work through the lens of our own impending leadership change). Her never-seen dictator spouse has locked himself in the bathroom as angry rabble encroaches upon the palace, where the First Lady encounters a regime lackey, a representative of the collaborator media, and a trio of protesters.

The Dictator’s Wife fancies itself a satire, but this is satire without irony or cleverness, a dull parade of unpleasant characters meant to invoke our disdain with all the subtlety of a Sean Hannity harangue. Hanif’s libretto is devoid of interesting ideas beyond the grade-school insights that the powerful are self-involved and harbor animosity towards their inferiors. Even more problematic: the libretto’s attempts at humor fall dreadfully flat, trading mostly on vulgarity and jokes that are only funny because people are singing them in opera voices. If the resistance is going to include an opera brigade, we’re going to need to do better than this.

Fairouz’ caustic, jazz-inflected score, reminiscent of Kurt Weill, is pleasant enough accompaniment, but doesn’t do much to salvage the proceedings. The vocal writing is often awkward and uninspired, singling out unimportant or obvious bits of text for more attention (as in an indifferent “let them eat cake” type duet for the First Lady and the dictator’s Aide-de Camp). That said, the First Lady’s two large solos towards the end of the show, including an “Evita” style balcony proclamation, are more musically interesting, as is the adjacent ensemble for the full cast. By that point, however, any investment we had in these characters has long been squandered.

WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz young artists did their best with this assignment (useful preparation for the future, I’m sure). Allegra de Vita’s First Lady had a slightly rocky start but soon demonstrated a fine, focused soprano which duly impressed in her big showpieces. Ariana Wehr, this fall’s Barbarina in WNO’s Marriage of Figaro, showed off a bright, exciting upper register as the regime-enabling director, while Hunter Enoch brought a confident sound to the Aide-de-Camp. The chance to hear young artist program standouts Timothy J. Bruno, Leah Hawkins and Rexford Tester again at least partially redeemed the often baffling material for the three protesters.

Thankfully, 1/14’s lineup of three world premiere scenes went a long way towards making up for the first night’s misfire, offering a particularly strong selection of miniatures that each managed to establish a distinctive and largely effective creative voice.

Matthew Peterson’s score for The Lifeboat comes closest to the neo-romantic idiom of a Jake Heggie or Tobias Picker. The scene of a doctor, soldier and professor stranded in a lifeboat after a shipwreck provides a simple framework for dramatizing a range of extreme emotions as the characters break down and turn on each other, strikingly captured in Peterson’s roiling depictions of the ocean and driving percussive effects underscoring the tense exchanges.

Librettist Emily Roller’s tauht, spare dialogue nicely complements the score, largely avoiding the pitfalls of having the characters say too much when the orchestra’s voice can do it better. Moments like the lovely central aria for the Doctor, sung here by the wonderful mezzo Daryl Freedman, emerge organically from the characters’ inner monologues rather than feeling like a contrived set piece. While the libretto reaches a bit for something profound to sum up the scene in a final trio, it’s a beautifully-scored moment for the three principals, and might easily be justified in a longer excerpt.

Adam, from composer Zach Redler and librettist J. Douglas Carson, picks up on our current android craze with a quirky story about a humanoid waking up for the first time. Unlike the more abstract musical ideas in Lifeboat, Adam’s colorful, cinematic score is unabashed in its musical references, from sweet, technological optimism in the tender opening scene between Adam and his mother figure/creator Athena, to exuberant riffing on martial themes in a scene where an army colonel attempts to groom Adam for military uses.

Leaving behind the exotic scenarios of the first two works, What Gets Kept, with music by Frances Pollock, turns inward, bringing an intimate chamber opera sensibility to a story about Amy, a terminally ill woman, and her family. Pollock’s music lovingly portrays the subtle emotional changes in these domestic scenes, as when a bittersweet melody underscoring a scene between Amy and her teenage daughter gives way to more ambivalence when Amy’s husband enters, skeptical of her plans to end her life, or when the music seems to slow and exhaust itself as Amy takes her fatal medication. Sentimental but not trite, this score clearly shares some DNA with the highbrow musical theatre, but Pollock takes full advantage of the different opportunities available in an opera setting for further development of the orchestral material and more fluid interplay between voices and orchestra.

Vanessa Moody’s libretto is the most “literal” of the three works, and while simple musicalizing of a straight play seems to be a frequent stumbling block in new libretti, the carefully chosen dialogue works here. Daryl Freedman enjoyed another mini-triumph as Amy, finding tremendous poignancy in a monologue justifying her decision to end her life.

Among the other young artists filling out the evening’s roles, Raquel Gonzalez offered a warm, sympathetic soprano as the creator in Adam, a quick change from the exciting, piercing sound she deployed as the anxious soldier in Lifeboat. Frederick Ballentine, who memorably portrayed the journalist in Phillip GlassAppomattox last season, lent an expressive tenor to the husband in What Gets Kept, while bass-baritone Andrew Bogard delivered a devious, intimidating Colonel in Adam.

A small contingent of Washington National Opera Orchestra players were handled well by Nicole Paiement (Dictator’s Wife) and Steven Osgood (the 20-minute operas), while directors Ethan McSweeny and Andrea Dorf McGray presided over effective semi-staged productions in the Kennedy Center’s Family Theatre.

Photo: Scott Suchman