Crowned: Opera Odyssey’s June Festival, plus Guerilla Opera and Commonwealth Lyric Theater, and OperaHub
For a city that hasn’t seemed very welcoming to opera, Boston has had a lot of opera going on lately. Since Opera Boston closed on January 1, 2012, there’s been only one major opera company left, the Boston Lyric. But last fall, Gil Rose, former music director of Opera Boston, returned as the head of an important new company, Odyssey Opera, leading a rare performance in concert of Wagner’s first opera, the epic Rienzi. It was a critical success, and now, at the intimate BU Theatre, Odyssey has let its other shoe drop with two programs of fully staged smaller-scale but equally unusual repertoire: Verdi’s second opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), the first of his only two comedies and one of the biggest flops of his entire career; and a double bill of Mascagni’s even rarer “lyric scene,” Zanetto, last seen in Boston in 1902, when Mascagni himself brought it on an American tour (and was thrown into the Charles Street jail for not paying his company), and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s 1910 farce, Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s “secret” being her unladylike addiction to cigarettes).
The Verdi was an unqualified delight, imaginatively designed, deliciously staged without distorting the composer’s intentions, and extremely well sung, acted, played, and conducted. This production made it seem easy to do opera right—why can’t this happen more often?
After the favorable impression he made with his first opera, Oberto, Verdi was commissioned by the director of La Scala to produce three more. His next one was going to be a tragic work, but the company decided to do a comedy instead—probably not what the composer was in the mood for after the precipitous deaths of his two young daughters and, soon after, his wife. Of the subjects that were suggested, he was least unhappy with an old libretto by the distinguished poet Felice Romani (librettist for, among others, Bellini’s Norma and La sonnambula, Rossini’s Il turco in Italia, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and L’elisir d’amore, with its famous and touching tenor aria, “Una furtiva lagrima”). Un giorno di regno’s subtitle, Il finto Stanislao (the phony Stanislaus), refers to its central character, Belfiore, who is in Brittany to impersonate the king of Poland publicly while the real King Stanislaus is secretly rallying his troops to return to Poland (a plot of mistaken identity akin to The Inspector General or The Prisoner of Zenda). Belfiore must hide his true identity even from his lover, a young widow, the Marchesa del Poggio, which puts his own love life at risk. In the end, he of course manages to solve both his own romantic problems and those of the young couple whom Belfiore’s host, the Barone di Kelbar, has been trying to keep apart.
The music is not quite memorable—nothing as striking as the great chorus of Jewish refugees (“Va pensiero”) in his very next opera, Nabucco, or the soaring final trios in I Lombardi or Ernani (the next two). But it is always inventive and effervescent, including not only arias and duets but complex ensembles, owing a lot of course to Rossini and Donizetti, but having its own distinct color, or (to use one of Verdi’s own favorite terms) “tinta,” with some fleeting hints of La traviata. If not even early-Verdi at his best, Giorno is still thoroughly Verdi—tuneful, energetic, rhythmically vital, and forward-moving even when the plot slows down and threatens to fall apart.
Conductor Gil Rose, artistic director of Odyssey Opera, led a buoyant performance, beginning with the sprightly overture, like a march on tiptoe, which includes some of the best music in the opera. It was good to hear most of it with the curtain down, without the distraction of stage business (one of my pet gripes about current opera productions). When the curtain finally went up, we had already heard all the major themes, and stage director Joshua Major (chair of opera studies at the New England Conservatory and son of Leon Major, former artistic director of the Boston Lyric Opera) used the musical repeats to clearly lay out the confusing dramatic conflict.
You’d have had to parse the informative program note with extra care to learn that this was not the opera’s Boston premiere but the first local performance using the new critical edition of the score. The last professional Giorno di regno in Boston took place at Brookline High School in 1980—a production that finally jump-started the sputtering Boston Lyric Opera, which began as an amalgamation of three smaller companies formed four years earlier. The staging had so much mugging, I thought my ribs would get bruised from being so relentlessly elbowed. The English translation wasn’t so subtle either (“I would chew you up in pieces but you’d only give me gas.”). Its major virtue was a star turn by soprano Susan Larson, the one member of the cast who could navigate the stylistic tightrope between farce and honest sentiment (“50 minutes into the opera,” the Globe‘s Richard Dyer reported, “Susan Larson strode in and took charge”—“firing the single telling glance,” another critic wrote, “while everyone else used buckshot”).
Joshua Major wisely chose the road less traveled by: having the performers actually take their absurd predicaments seriously, so that the source of the opera’s humor was not a series of shticks but the human comedy. (Not that there weren’t witty theatrical bits throughout, as when a spotlight came up on one character’s interior thoughts while the rest of the players froze in place.) So when baritone James Maddalena (Peter Sellars’s first Don Giovanni, the original Nixon in Nixon in China, and one of our most profound Lieder singers), as the Barone de Kelbar, entered wearing a bathrobe, he wasn’t a caricature but a character with whom the audience could identify, a man worried about his finances and the betrothal of his daughter. You felt immediately that you were in good hands. In fact, you knew even earlier, because you were already charmed by Stephen Dobay’s stylishly elegant stage set—an outdoor terrace behind which floated a large picture-frame with an image of a fairy-tale castle.
Maddalena was soon joined by another baritone wearing a nightshirt, a singer also familiar to Boston audiences, David Kravitz, as La Rocca, the elderly treasurer to whom the Barone wants to marry off his daughter. Their friendly then increasingly hostile patter duets (one almost turning into a duel) were among the evening’s comic highlights.
The young lovers were high-mezzo-soprano Jessica Medoff, as Giulietta (the Barone’s pretty blond daughter), in her Boston debut, and as her impecunious lover, Edoardo, Boston lyric tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan, whose clear, tight vocal focus (he sounds almost like a ventriloquist throwing his voice) went weirdly astray on one misplaced high note. As the attractive widow, American soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra, coming to Boston after having performed Mozart’s Queen of the Night at the New York City Opera, made a very strong impression, singing with beauty of tone (up to a nailed high C-sharp), intelligence, and considerable charm. She looked quite glamorous in her bathtub scene and then in a black corset, but surely deserved better than the ill-fitting blue gown Amanda Mujica supplied for her.
At the center of the action was another New York City Opera veteran, baritone Michael Chioldi, as Belfiore, who appreciates both the power of his temporary authority and its limits. Chioldi has a solid rather than alluring voice that dries out a little and gets barky at high volume, but he sang with such authority and natural sense of phrasing and had such command of the stage, he succeeded in holding the silly machinations of the entire opera together without apparent effort. When the disappointed Edoardo wanted to enlist in the Polish army and leave his personal problems behind, Chioldi let us vividly “see” the imaginary sword he pulled from Manucharyan’s imaginary hilt.
And special kudos to the small chorus, who performed Major’s choreographic blocking with skill and sparkle as the various household servants.
On DVD (and YouTube—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti5uCwlDa60), there’s a very lively Giorno di regno from Parma in 2010, conducted by Donato Renzetti and starring the remarkable Ana Caterina Antonacci. But neither conductor nor stage director responded so immediately to the score as Rose and Major. It will be a while before most of us get a chance to see another live performance, and it’s hard to imagine a better one coming along.
My feelings about the double bill the following night were more mixed. Mascagni’s undramatic two-character Zanetto may be even harder to stage than Un giorno di regno. There’s almost no action in this “dialogue” between Silvia (soprano Eleni Calenos), an aging Renaissance courtesan, and Zanetto (mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti in a “trouser” role), a naïve wand’ring minstrel infatuated with her. Silvia finds that Zanetto has suddenly reawakened her to real love, but, heartbroken, she sends Zanetto away so he can preserve his ideal image of her. Dobay’s lovely stage picture transformed the architectural elements of his Verdi set into a verdant Tuscan hilltop—the picture frame this time holding an image of rolling hills, cypresses, and farmland. Lighting designer Christopher Ostrom filled the stage with an amber glow.
The music is gorgeous but monotonous, spinning out an over-ripe, languid melisma rather than strictly formal set pieces. Zanetto dates from 1896, six years after Cavalleria rusticana, Mascagni’s masterpiece, and the same year as Puccini’s La bohème (Mascagni was five years younger than Puccini). It lacks the ferocity and dramatic tension of Cavalleria. It has no climaxes—and doesn’t want them.
Stage director Daniel Gidron began with a nice touch, having Zanetto sing his serenade (accompanied in the orchestra by harpist Amanda Romano) from a first-balcony box. But it’s really hard to know what to do next. Since there’s so little action, soon all the meanderings around the stage seemed stultifying rather than enlivening. Both singers had rich, strong voices (though Calenos’s louder high notes—too loud? too high?—tended to shrillness), but their acting lacked definition and veered to the stilted. Zanetto was based on a French play that had been a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, and that must be the kind of dynamic, over-the-top acting this opera requires. One of Gil Rose’s best qualities is his versatility, but here his conducting could have used more shapely, more pointed phrasing, and more dramatic shifts in tempo—though the orchestral playing couldn’t be faulted. I asked someone I knew in the audience, a good stage director, if there was any solution to the problem of staging this opera. The answer: “Do it in concert!” (Odyssey has recorded Zanetto for release in 2015. Maybe it works better on CD.)
Everything suddenly leapt to life after intermission. Il segreto di Susanna was a hoot! Whatever reservations I had about Gidron’s directorial abilities vanished. And he had three terrific performers: flirtatious soprano Inna Dukach in the title role; Wagnerian bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter, who had strongly impressed me in Rienzi, as Count Gil, Susanna’s absurdly jealous husband; and as Sante, their mysteriously silent servant, singer/actor/director Stephen Goldstein proved an ineffably droll spirit. That he didn’t upstage his vocal colleagues is another testament to how good they were.
Gidron delivered some priceless moments. While Wolf-Ferrari’s orchestra bellowed an ominous and familiar theme from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Count Gil, in a fit of rage, threatened to smash a bust of Beethoven. As Susanna sank to her knees to beg her husband’s forgiveness, she simultaneously took one last huge drag of her cigarette. Even the set was funny. That picture frame so important as the backdrops for Verdi and Mascagni, unexpectedly turned up here as the ceiling of the couple’s modish apartment. The audience started to laugh even before anyone sang a note. And hanging on the back wall in this opera about smoking was a visual pun: a poster for Massenet’s Cendrillon—Cinder-Ella (“cendrier” is the French word for ashtray).
The overture to Il segreto di Susanna was once a Pops staple, and it’s a charmer. The whole score combines Italianate piquancy (looking only a few years ahead to Respighi’s Pines and Fountains of Rome), the pictorial orchestral delicacy of Richard Strauss, parodies of melodramatic 19th-century verismo, and the sinuous scintillation of Debussy—those Afternoon of a Faun flutes suggesting the smoke curling up from Susanna’s cigarettes. It’s almost like a movie soundtrack. And of course the audience relished every leering euphemistic insinuation suggesting the thin line between smoking and sex.
Opera Odyssey has announced its return to Jordan Hall on September 13 with the belated Boston premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), one of the twentieth century’s most hyper-romantic operas, which includes a soprano aria that has one of opera’s most memorable tunes. The leading singers are Metropolitan Opera artists Meagan Miller and Jay Hunter Morris. No word yet on what surprises Opera Odyssey has in store for us next spring. But a lot of people who attended this season will surely want to come back.
The Commonwealth Lyric Theater specializes in lesser-known Russian operas. At the Center Makor, Brighton’s large meeting place for its Russian-Jewish community, there’ve been productions of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, and, this year, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri (1897), a one-act opera based on the Pushkin play that inspired Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus—about how the academic Italo-Austrian composer Antonio Salieri, jealous of his uncanny younger contemporary Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, both understanding and fearing his genius, comes to find his rival’s existence unendurable and poisons him.
As in the play and the Oscar-winning movie, the more flamboyant role is Salieri. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that part for Russia’s greatest basso-profundo, Feodor Chaliapin. The opera demands a thrilling singer, and Commonwealth had one: the Bolshoi Theater’s Mikhail Svetlov, who was magnificent in the title role of Aleko last year. Svetlov has a voice of massive size, depth, and richness, a little rough, but absolutely riveting and, once you’ve heard it, unforgettable. (There was an alternative cast, but I attended only the performance with Svetlov.) His acting here was broadly generic rather than intricately detailed. Handsome young tenor Mikhail Yanenko, from the Boris Prokovsky Chamber Musical Theater in Moscow, was a suitable Mozart.
Rimsky-Korsakov set Pushkin’s play almost word for word. It’s a very tight piece of theater and makes an effective opera—only 40 minutes long. The score is compelling, if not truly memorable, another example of an opera breaking away from the formal conventions of 19th-century (and earlier) practice. But its very brevity presents a problem for any company that wants to produce it. How can you ask a ticket-buying public to pay for only 40 minutes of music? The solution usually has been to put it on a double bill (like Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci—or Zanetto and Il segreto di Susanna).
Commonwealth came up with a more inventive though ultimately less satisfying solution. The production began with the orchestra playing an unsettlingly out-of-tune version of the moving “Lacrymosa” from Mozart’s Requiem (according to Commonwealth’s executive director Olga Lisovskaya, many people in the first audience were so appalled by the deliberately “poor” playing that this opening was dropped in the two ensuing performances); and it ended with a postlude of the full chorus singing the “Lacrymosa”—beautifully—by candlelight. Zachary Schwartzman conducted. And to further flesh out the production, and give more people in the company something to do, artistic director Alexander Prokhorov (who also sang the alternate Salieri) inserted between Rimsky-Korsakov’s two scenes a half-hour “intermezzo” in which, at the dinner party that’s going to end with the poisoning of Mozart, Salieri puts on a series of arias and ensembles from Mozart’s operas, ending with the scene from Don Giovanni in which the Statue of the Commendatore drags the hero down to Hell. This extended interlude, perhaps Salieri’s ironic tribute to Mozart, also seemed to want to be a kind of allegory. But except for the selection from Don Giovanni, the other musical numbers—performed both stylishly and not so stylishly, well-sung and not so well-sung, more delightful and less so—didn’t have much cumulative dramatic point and, finally, seemed merely to interrupt and slow down Rimsky-Korsakov’s tight little juggernaut of an opera. Commonwealth is on much surer footing with strictly Russian works.
The adventurous Guerilla Opera, founded in 2007, has produced an exciting series of new works at the little Zack Box Theatre at the Boston Conservatory, though some of the works, like Andy Vores’s devastating No Exit, based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous one-act play, have been more exciting than others. Guerilla’s latest production was one of its best: composer/librettist Ken Ueno’s strange (really strange) new opera, Gallo: a fable in music. It’s in part a hallucinatory and deeply personal response to natural catastrophe (both the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the 2011 tsunami that triggered the Fukushima meltdown), in which a rooster (the impressive and uninhibited countertenor Douglas Dodson) and a compulsive shopper and/or stripper and/or Earth Mother (Guerilla’s equally uninhibited general manager, soprano Aliana de le Guardia) are having it out in a sandbox filled with Cheerios (I’m not making this up—the “Premier Cheerios Sponsor” got a half-page thank you in the program booklet). They seem to embody the yin and yang of modern culture. I can’t entirely explain this—but I believed it, was gripped by it (although I think it could afford to be trimmed, especially some of the pre-recorded “noise”), and certainly believed in the music, which I found mysterious, at times bewildering, and often ravishingly beautiful, especially the extended cello solo based on and distorting themes by the 17th-century Baroque composer Domenico Galli, whose only surviving works are for solo cello
One of the opera’s basic themes is the coalescence of time, the Baroque and the Modern superimposed upon each other (hence the rooster dancing a stately gigue then peeling his 18th-century clothing off his rooster outfit; Lisbon and Fukushima; Stravinsky re-orchestrating Baroque music in Pulcinella). Passacaglia and Baroque dance, electronic samplings, and a Bohlen-Pierce clarinet, ending up with a clip of the last episode of Newhart, in which Bob Newhart as Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon wakes up as psychologist Bob Hartley from The Bob Newhart Show, his previous sitcom, and discovers the entire eight-year Newhart show was just his bad dream.
“You know this beach,” stage director Sarah Meyers writes in her program note. “You’ve been here before. Was it yesterday? Or 60 years ago? Or maybe it wasn’t you—maybe it was your grandmother, and now you are walking in her footprints; maybe she is casting your shadow.” Audience members sitting in the first row of benches surrounding the stage became interactive participants—tossing a beach ball back and forth to the singers and the musicians who visited the sandbox; helping to weave a web of kite-string around the stage; and even lying in the Cheerios on beach blankets, as my guest and I were recruited to do (I’m not really sure how the opera ended given the skewed position I was watching it from). “Consider yourselves now voyagers,” Meyers advises, “to a land where time and space intermingle. Here are past, present, and future. And while this may seem a foreign shore, don’t be surprised if you stumble upon something familiar, a relic of your own past…. You’ve been here before. You’ll be here again.”
My only complaint is that the slow final fade-out left no place for the audience to applaud. So applause now for Ken Ueno, Guerilla Opera, and everyone connected with Gallo: set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat, lighting designer Tláloc López-Watermann, costume designer Annie Simon, and the brilliant—and game—musical ensemble: Amy Advocat (clarinets), Kent O’Doherty (saxophone), company co-artistic director Mike Williams (percussion), Nicole Cariglia (cello), and Rudolph Rojahn (electronics).
OperaHub has been around for seven years and it already has under its belt productions of 18 different operas one wouldn’t get to see under other circumstances. And all the performances are free! Its spiky, economical version of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) made my Boston Phoenix “Best of 2010” list. So I’m a fan. Hub’s latest venture was its most ambitious: the German composer Heinrich Marschner’s 1828 opera Der Vampyr, accompanied not, as in previous Hub performances, by piano or harpsichord but in a new arrangement by Moshe Shulman (who also did the orchestral reduction for Mozart and Salieri), underwritten by a grant from the Harvard Musical Association, for a six-piece chamber orchestra, led by music director Lina Marcela Gonzalez. (Eight performances at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre through June 28.)
But adding an orchestra was only part of the project. John J. King (self-described in the program notes as “part Texan and part Tyrannosaur”) created an entirely new English-language adaptation, changing the names of the characters (from Emmy to Muffy, for example, with its broad hint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and Lord Ruthven and Malwina to Collins and Della, suggesting Twilight’s Edward Cullen and Bella Swan); changing the date and location (from 18th-century Scotland to London in 1897—the year of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—which a projection informs us “was not an instant suck-sess”); and, obviously, changing the tone—from Marschner’s somberly chilling vision of the supernatural to a satirical, even farcical take on the contemporary craze for vampire stories, and with a feminist twist, in which tough Muffy and ingenuous Della argue that women are neither helpless victims nor men’s “property” (“In the home we’re making,/you can do the baking,” young chauvinistic Parker sings to Della, who firmly answers: “In this sequel,/treat me as an equal.”)
King’s version of Der Vampyr is only the latest addition to the history of comic vampire stories that includes Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers and Charles Hart’s 1992 BBC TV’s serialized version of Marschner, The Vampyr: A Soap Opera. The libretto is brims over with clever and often anachronistic or off-color rhymes (“This is foolish, don’t be mulish”; “You wimp, don’t be so limp!”) and puns (“I have a little trick,” Collins tells Della, who sucks on her punctured finger, “when you have a little prick”; Muffy announces that Collins “thinks he’s taking me out for ‘steak.’ He’s right!”). “Carfax Abbey,” we are told, is “just across from Downton.” Someone even exclaims “Oy, vey!”
Marschner’s was one of several vampire operas in the early decades of the 19th century. They all came out of an 18th-century passion for “sensation” and “melancholy,” the target of Keats’s great “Ode on Melancholy” (1819). The operatic masterpiece of German Romanticism before Wagner was Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 Der Freischütz (The Free-Shooter), with its magnificently spooky scene in the Wolf’s Glen, Marschner’s musical ancestor but richer than almost anything in Der Vampyr. The Marschner has been occasionally revived (New Orleans Opera Association opened its 2013 season with it), but it hasn’t been done in Boston since 1980, when the Boston Conservatory gave what was evidently its American premiere. The same year Sarah Caldwell staged it for her touring children’s opera program, Opera New England.
Perhaps the true genius behind OperaHub’s production is producer/director Christie Lee Gibson, whose non-stop invention literally took center stage (along with Ian W. King’s brilliant lighting work and Kenny Burt’s efficiently angular, off-kilter set). Not an inch of the Park Theatre’s small space got wasted. The audience ate up the moment when Muffy throws a knife, and Giles, her boyfriend, spins it slowly around as he crosses the stage and plunges it into a photo of (I believe) Twilight’s Robert Pattinson. Gibson welcomed the audience with a request for further donations. She told us the production cost $25,000. Amazing how, when push comes to shove, it’s possible that imagination can triumph over a minimal budget.
The one large question for me was how much of Gibson’s staging—and the change of tone—distracted from the music itself. The exuberant busyness during the overture made a hilarious introduction to the opera, but Marschner definitely played second fiddle. I couldn’t concentrate on the music. I was happier with Muffy’s “Romanze” at the beginning of the second act—where more stillness on the stage actually let you take in the lyric melody. It didn’t hurt that Lindsay Conrad (who captivated me a couple of years ago as Alice Ford, the leading soprano role, in Boston Opera Collaborative’s appealing production of Verdi’s Falstaff) had the most beautiful voice and most solid vocal technique in the company.
For almost everyone else in the 13-member cast, better than competent singing was enlivened by strong, sometimes deliberately hammy (especially on the part of the vampires) acting. After Conrad, the best voice belonged to bass-baritone Justin Hicks as stolid Sheriff Swann, Della’s father. I’d also single out witty baritone Jacob Cooper (Ford in that BOC Falstaff), his canines sharply elongated, in the title role; sopranos Megan Welker as the vampire’s first victim and Tamara Ryan as Della; and mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher as the blowsy vampire barmaid (utterly different from her affecting performance as the vengeful mother in BOC’s recent production of Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song). All these young performers had a delightfully knowing twinkle that always put you on their side. And musically, if not always vocally, they were an impeccable ensemble in Marschner’s intricate group numbers. I like the way so many of these young artists are involved with several of our smaller local companies. I like seeing familiar faces and hearing familiar voices in a variety of roles—and seeming to enjoy them so thoroughly.
Sad to report a couple of major losses to the musical community. The Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos died of cancer at the age of 80, shortly after canceling his performances at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was one of the BSO’s handful of go-to musicians, often filling in at short notice, especially after music director James Levine’s physical problems became chronic. Since 2000, he conducted more than 100 BSO performances. My favorite among them was a noble Berlioz Requiem in 2011. My favorite Frühbeck moment was on the opening night of the 2002 season. He was leading the Verdi Requiem and only a couple of bars into the piece a cell phone went off. The maestro stopped, paused a moment, then began again. Then same bar, same cell phone! This time the maestro turned around and glared into the house. Angry members of the audience began to hiss in rage. Then he calmly turned around and began again. It was the only time I’ve ever seen him lose his cool, though it was a very controlled response. And there were no further interruptions.
Our other Requiem is for the 61-year-old composer Lee Hyla, who taught composition at the New England Conservatory for 25 years—apparently a challenging figure, but a much-loved one. I never got to know his music, with its spiky mixture of classical and rock, as thoroughly as I’d intended. But I encourage you to click on this link for music critic Jeremy Eichler’s astute appreciation in the Boston Globe: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/obituaries/2014/06/10/lee-hyla-former-new-england-conservatory-professor-composed-scores-that-melded-energy-and-complexity-rock-and-classical-music/KlkfuYyA4hDqOMi6ayBvFJ/story.html