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Review: ‘The Dictator’s Wife’ at Washington National Opera

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A one-hour World Premiere opera is reason enough for the imagination to run rampant with artistic anticipation. So what a veritable array of riches it was to indulge the senses and challenge the mind with the Washington National Opera’s production of The Dictator’s Wife.

Leah Hawkins (I-Will-Sell-My-Children Mom), Timothy J. Bruno (Death Row Dad), Allegra De Vita (the First Lady), Rexford Tester (Give-Me-Cheap-Petrol Protestor), Hunter Enoch (Aide-de-camp (ADC)), and Ariana Wehr(Ms. Holy). Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

This intriguing, topical and satiric piece of enigmatic yet trenchant opera may have been compressed into one hour’s running time but that in no way diminished the lingering thoughts that I could not forget after this wonderful opera. The compressed time allowed the focus points of the libretto to radiate into the consciousness and to produce ripples of rumination.

Part of the American Opera Initiative Festival which highlights young American Librettists, Composers and creative artists, this World Premiere opera compelled interest on the musical level, the theatrical level and the philosophical level.

An evocative operatic score with contemporary undertones —by composer Mohammed Fairouz —perfectly punctuated the actions of this small cast of characters. Highly relevant and often bizarre humor is used to provide counterpoint to the vacuous and horrifying reality that is the essence of this opera.

Composer Fairouz said –in a post-performance artistic discussion—that he strongly believes that all opera should be highly theatrical and this jewel of an opera certainly held one spellbound as “pure story.” I often felt as if I was watching a “sung-through” musical as this opera has such a strong libretto and such a heightened theatricality.

Librettist Mohammed Hanif pushes all the right buttons to demarcate the dualisms and ironies inherent in this very relevant libretto. As a Dictator stays hidden —crouching and cowering in the bathroom—–his wife must deal with all of the issues and obstacles he has left behind. Obvious parallels with corrupt foreign regimes, relevance to our society, and a certain Presidential-elect might all come to mind.

Themes of the world of the outsider/real person versus the hermetically –sealed, “walled-off” world of the privileged, the poor versus the rich, comedy versus tragedy, and sexual attraction versus death –clash, collide, and intersect in amusing and provocative ways throughout the opera.

The tone of the opera often reminded me of the short but thought –provoking plays of playwright Wallace Shawn such as The Fever and Aunt Dan and Lemon. An almost surrealistic tone is flashed out as Director Ethan McSweeny propels his cast though their vigorous paces.

Mr. McSweeny opts for an interactive edge to the proceedings as the characters of the protesters sing epitaphs and chants of grief and protest while walking up and down the aisles of the Theater space.

Costume Design by Lynly A. Saunders was exquisite and Lighting Design by A. J. Guban was thrilling and appropriately stimulating to the eye throughout.

Conductor Nicole Paiement conducted the members of the Washington National Opera Orchestra with sensitivity and delicacy. Ms. Paiement encouraged the appropriate urgency for the dramatic high points when needed.

As the First Lady who must take control of her foundering situation, mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita was mesmerizing and possessed marvelous theatrical élan. Ms. De Vita projected a very sensual and commanding quality that fit in perfectly with her role.

Ms. De Vita possesses an astonishing voice of infinite variety and shading with an amazing vocal range. She paced and channeled her more practical and earthy passages by singing in her middle register only to thrill the audience by switching to her upper register with her sustained and beautifully cadenced high notes –which sent chills down my spine.

Soprano Arian Wehr (Mrs. Holy) was a constant delight in her singing. Her lovely Soprano was often employed in a vocal style that was comically conversational in style. Ms. Wehr did a superb job portraying the compromises that are necessary when advocating for the needs of others in an inflexible society.

Conductor Nicole Paiement, Allegra De Vita (the First Lady), and Hunter Enoch (Aide-de-camp (ADC)). Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

As the Aide-de-camp, baritone Hunter Enoch “hit all the right notes” (pun intended!)in his role. His vocal highlight was the scene where he grasped his briefcase with the nuclear codes and almost had his own nuclear “meltdown” onstage. Enoch’s character was full of irony and an authoritative demeanor.

This unique and highly relevant opera is full of many different nuances, surprises, and dramatic twists and turns. The ever-changing and varied textures of this opera –and the stunning music and libretto —definitely convince me that many future productions are forthcoming.

Do not miss The Dictator’s Wife!

Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

The Dictator’s Wife plays through Sunday, January 15, 2017 at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The final performance is tomorrow, Sunday, January 15, 2017, at 2 PM. The performance is Sold Out. For future WNO performances go to their website.

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