Opera Boom: Lots of opera in Boston, but how much was really good?

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Sir Arthur Sullivan's The Zoo at Odyssey Opera, Photo Kathy Wittman.

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Zoo at Odyssey Opera, Photo Kathy Wittman.

I need more than two hands to count the number of operas I’ve attended in Boston so far this year. Two productions by the Boston Lyric Opera, our leading company; nine (four fully staged) by our newest company, Odyssey Opera; a brilliant concert version by the BSO of Szymanowski’s disturbing and mesmerizing King Roger; all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, performed in repertory for possibly the very first time; a rarely produced Mozart masterpiece, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in a solid and often eloquently sung concert version by Emmanuel Music; the world premiere of Crossing, 25-year-old Matthew Aucoin’s one-act opera about Whitman in the Civil War, presented by A.R.T.; and the first local production of Hulak-Artemovsky’s Cossack Beyond the Danube, the Ukrainian national opera, by Commonwealth Lyric Theater (imaginatively staged and magnificently sung). Not to mention several smaller production I couldn’t actually get to—including an adventurous new work, Per Bloland’s Pedr Solis, by the heroic Guerrilla Opera, which I got to watch only on-line, and Boston Opera Collaborative’s Ned Rorem Our Town (music I’m not crazy about, but friends I trust liked the production).

Michael Szafran in the  Commonwealth Lyric Theater's production of “Zaporozhets za Dunayem” with members of the Syzokryli Dance Ensemble.

Michael Szafran in the Commonwealth Lyric Theater’s production of “Zaporozhets za Dunayem” with members of the Syzokryli Dance Ensemble.

A lot of opera! But how full is the cup?

The BLO productions were the major disappointments. Kátya Kabanová was the long overdue first professionally staged Janáček opera since Sarah Caldwell’s stunning Makropoulos Case in 1985. And the team responsible for it—stage director Tim Albery and conductor David Angus—were the people who three years ago gave us BLO’s most inspired production, Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse at the JFK Library. But Kátya—sung in insipid English that didn’t fit Janáček’s rhythms (even the students at Boston Conservatory sang Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen in Czech)—was a dreary affair, with some fine supporting singers who couldn’t sufficiently compensate for the vocal and theatrical inadequacies of the soprano in the title role.

BLO followed this with Mozart’s overwhelming “drama giocoso” (jokey drama), Don Giovanni, with some perfectly acceptable singing in most (if not all) roles, yet with tepid and confusing staging (and sets that looked as if all the action were taking place outside a ladies lounge) and lackluster conducting. What some people consider the world’s greatest opera exists in two authentic versions: the one Mozart wrote for Prague and his revision for Vienna, in which, among other things, he added one of his supreme arias (Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradí,” lamenting her betrayal by Don Giovanni), and substituted a beautiful but less demanding aria (“Dalla sua pace”) for Don Ottavio’s sublime and difficult “Il mio tesoro.” Mozart also added a duet for the country bride Zerlina and the Don’s servant Leporello, but abbreviated the finale and eliminating the final moralizing (though musically memorable) sextet.

We usually get some combination of the two, emphasizing the Prague version. But in a misguided attempt to streamline a work that doesn’t need help from interlopers, BLO omitted, without authority, one of the most astonishing scenes in the history of opera (the banquet, at which three orchestras are playing on stage—one of them a popular tune by Mozart himself, from Figaro, with Leporello’s ironic comment about being tired of hearing it) and a major aria by Don Giovanni disguised as Leporello. Mozart never cut either of these. This isn’t the first time BLO has arbitrarily left out significant music from an opera to save time (remember Carmen without Carmen’s famous Gypsy dance?). The audience should be entitled to a pro-rated refund.

On the other hand, just as Opera Boston was giving BLO a run for its money before its untimely demise (with, for example, memorable first Boston productions of John Adams’s Nixon in China and Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face), Odyssey Opera (an offshoot of Opera Boston, under the directorship of Opera Boston’s Gil Rose) has already made itself indispensable in only its second season by providing skillful and inspired productions of operatic rarities with impressive casts. After a memorable concert version of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt last fall, this spring’s season, under the rubric “The British Invasion,” began with a full-scale production at the BU (aka Huntington) Theatre of Vaughan Williams’s 1928 Falstaff opera, Sir John in Love, a touchingly melancholy comedy in which the composer’s interest in folk music most eloquently manifests itself—at its most emotionally piercing when Alice Ford sings “Greensleeves” (Vaughan Williams’s famous Fantasia on “Greensleeves” is actually an adaptation by Ralph Greeves taken from its appearance here). Unfussily staged by Joshua Major—who also did  splendid work last year with Verdi’s early comedy Un giorno di regno (King for a Day)—and conducted by Gil Rose, Sir John burst exuberantly into life once the exposition of the first act was cleared out of the way. The comedy fell into place, along with the poignancy of Falstaff’s failure. From Oren Gradus as Falstaff, Courtney Miller as Alice Ford, Michael Chioldi as Ford, and Cindy Sadler as the robust Mistress Quickly, down to resonant septuagenarian Robert Honeysucker in the cameo role of the Host of the Garter Inn, there wasn’t a weak link in the cast.

The next British invaders arrived in a wittily imagined double bill. First, an early, obscure Arthur Sullivan farce (sans Gilbert), The Zoo (in what seems to have been its first American production), with a negligible and silly plot, hummable tunes you could almost recognize from G&S, and—in Lynn Torgove’s ingenious staging—the idea that each character visiting the zoo was as much an animal as the ones in the cages, all wearing clothing (designed by Amanda Mujica) that suggested his or her animal double (I particularly liked the old lady leaning over her cane, looking like a hump-backed camel and wearing a fez).

The second half of the bill (also staged by Torgove, with even better material) was a neglected little masterpiece by William Walton based on Chekhov’s one-act comedy The Bear (what better work to share a bill with The Zoo?). The two main characters are an excessively grieving widow and a desperate landowner come to collect a debt owed him by the deceased husband. Naturally, the pair fall in love. Sparks kept flying between mezzo-soprano Janna Baty, who could bring down the house with the twitch of a single eyebrow (and she’s got a lot more than an eyebrow to work with), and baritone Stephen Salters, the vocal and physical embodiment of the title role. The electricity between these two was an object lesson for any singers who share a stage.

Rose and the orchestra reveled in every note of this scintillating score filled with knowing parodies of every kind of opera, from coloratura sobbing to a sly reference to Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” (in front of a bust of Strauss!).

Before Odyssey’s next staged opera, there was a fascinating evening of five short modern operas with only a single singer in each—including colorful minor works by Lennox Berkeley (Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila, with contralto Stephanie Kacoyannis) and Richard Rodney Bennett (Ophelia, with countertenor Martin Near and a synthesizer replacing the mysterious ondes Martenot).

Among the more important items were Benjamin Britten’s cantata Phaedra, his last vocal work, a setting of Robert Lowell’s powerful rhymed translation of Racine. Erica Brookhyser delivered an impressive vocal performance, but she didn’t quite inhabit the role the way, say, Janet Baker, Jane Struss (in the American premiere, under the late Donald Teeters), or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson—hard acts to follow—did. Judith Weir’s eight-character, three-act, ten-minute King Harald’s Saga (her own translation from a 13th-century Icelandic poem), had soprano Elizabeth Keusch completely distinctive in each role, with her wide range of body language and vocal coloration (she even got to sing a duet in the very different voices of Harald’s two wives). The most familiar work was Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, with baritone Thomas Meglioranza (Chou En-lai in Opera Boston’s Nixon) heart-stopping as the crazed George the Third. Even though I knew it was going to happen, the scene in which George smashes the concertmaster’s violin was more devastating than ever.

Amanda Hall and Ben Wager in Odyssey Opera’s production of Thomas Adès’ "Powder Her Face"

Amanda Hall and Ben Wager in Odyssey Opera’s production of Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face”

The Odyssey season came to a smashing conclusion with the return of Powder Her Face (three performances at the Boston Conservatory Theatre). Opera Boston’s “Opera Unlimited” production in 2003, with Jana Baty sensational as the lubricious Duchess of Argyle, the star of her own sex scandal in the 1950s, and high-soprano Heather Buck as her insolent maid and other nemeses, was one of the most exciting opera events of 21st-century Boston. This stylish new production, directed and designed by Nic Muni, from the beginning emphasized the pathos of the Duchess rather than her uninhibited zest. Even in the famous blow-job scene, suggestively—even graphically—depicted in the orchestra, the Duchess (humming rather than actually singing) seemed more humiliated than sexually defiant. So some of the energy, the gusto, of that earlier production seemed tamed here, less a contract with the Duchess’s later downfall.

Adès was 24 in 1995 when he composed Powder Her Face, to a witty, literate libretto by novelist Philip Hensher. In the opening bars, you instantly hear a distinctive, fresh, original voice (unlike Matthew Aucoin, who was actually a year older when he composed Crossing, with its auto-pilot fallback into minimalism, and seems to have little personal stamp at all). Adès’s overture has some of the gossipy buzz of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture, then switches instantly into a hallucinatory tango coming from some deranged sexual ballroom. Even when no one is singing, the music depicts some action or image (like the ratchet of an old telephone dial) or quality of character. It’s relentlessly engaging, almost overflowing with ideas, even when it’s most horrifying.

Unlike most contemporary operas, the vocal lines themselves are as compelling as what’s going on in the orchestra. Some of this is parody and pastiche (like the Noel Coward-like cabaret song that the Duchess is so proud had been written for her and hummed by everyone; or the quotation from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, as the Duchess gets a silver rose), yet like Stephen Sondheim’s parodies of old songs, they also sound like no one else.

The problem for singers is that there’s so much going on—not exactly duets, but solos crossing each other—and such complexity in the orchestra, that it’s very hard to get the words across. Baty and Buck succeeded, but in a smaller hall than the Boston Conservatory Theatre, and their natural inclination to spit out the consonants made them far more comprehensible than Patricia Schuman’s Duchess or Amanda Hall’s Maid or (in this production) Gloria Steinem (to whom the Duchess advises: “Go to bed early—and often”). Schuman’s voice, set far back in her throat, has a firm and often luscious tone and Hall’s dazzling, stratospheric coloratura never for a moment sounded pinched or effortful. But too many—way too many—words were lost, and the decision not to have supertitles (in any of these Odyssey productions) turned out especially for this opera to be a seriously damaging one.

Still, praise for the intrepid cast. Tenor Daniel Norman, in at least six different roles, had by far the best diction. He makes his first appearance as a hotel electrician, in drag and falsetto, pretending to be the Duchess, his pants rolled up and wearing—flaunting—her fur coat. And bass Ben Wager, though vocally less consistent, was a versatile actor and made his best impressions as the Duchess’s slimy two-timing husband and the horrified, judgmental judge in the divorce scene.

And once again, Gil Rose gave a commanding sense of movement to the entire opera, so that when it slowed down at the end, he helped Schuman achieve not just pathos but a kind of dignity that made her a tragic figure. And while some of the orchestral playing was too loud, it was never less than blazingly brilliant.

What mystifies me, is that while all the Odyssey productions received extremely favorable reviews (although most of the Globe reviews appeared too late to help), the audiences, though wildly enthusiastic, remained small. Are most Bostonians so timid that the only operas they’re willing to spring for are the most popular ones? Cheers to Odyssey Opera for its willingness to challenge that assumption, and cheers to the audiences that showed up. I hope that they, like me, will cherish their rewards for years to come.

Colin Balzer as Ulisse in BEMF's production of Monteverdi's "Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria." Photo Frank Siteman.

Colin Balzer as Ulisse in BEMF’s production of Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria.” Photo Frank Siteman.

The Boston Early Music Festival is another story. People come from around the world for a week crowded with productions, concerts, talks, and exhibits. There’s a built-in audience. I attended the three surviving Monteverdi operas, advertised as “The Monteverdi Trilogy” (though they are actually completely separate works) and referred to by wags as “The Full Monty.” Two of the productions are old ones. BEMF presented Orfeo, surely the earliest great opera still in the repertory (1607), twice before, once in 1995 and a new version in 2012—the one resurrected to end this year’s festival. At Jordan Hall, the orchestra was on stage, with minimal sets and some of the same cast members—including tenor Aaron Sheehan and soprano Mireille Asselin, both vocally and dramatically exemplary as Orpheus and Euridice.

The score is ravishing, with its energetic fanfare-like ritornelli (repeated passages); and the playing this time, under co-music directors and fellow theorbists Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette, may have been more accomplished than last time, which might be what made it the liveliest of the three operas.

The stage director and set designer for all three was BEMF veteran Gilbert Blin, and it’s with him that I have my biggest argument. Two festivals ago, he directed Steffani’s Niobe (one of the most obscure of all the festival operas—and just released on a superb new Erato recording, with Amanda Forsythe in the title role and countertenor superstar Philippe Jaroussky as the king), and I thought Blin had made a huge breakthrough. Though the staging was still stylized, characters moved in a more natural and pointed way, less like the self-conscious posing in Blin’s previous productions. Even the relentlessly arch Baroque dancing seemed more integrated. And at the 2013 festival, his production of Handel’s first opera, Almira, continued that positive trajectory.

But what rubbed me the wrong way in Blin’s earlier Monteverdi incarnations—all that flouncing and posing he encouraged—continued to disappoint me. His “concept” for Orfeo (beware of concepts!) was that since the original Orfeo took place in a grand aristocratic house (although it was probably intended for a theater), that’s how he would stage it. So during that grand opening music, it wasn’t the characters in the opera who engaged our attention, but a bustling troupe of performers arriving at the house, fussily picking their costumes out of a wagon—and distracting us from the music. Even more distracting was a masked dancer (Carlos Fittante, who was co-choreographer for Niobe and Almira) returning in many different roles, mythological and allegorical. His self-conscious prancing intruded on every moment of high emotion. He even kept dancing around Orpheus as he lamented over the body of Eurydice. I think he may have had more stage time than Orpheus. Perhaps if the choreography were really expressive or truly inventive, it might have worked better. But it was arch and precious—the worst kind of directorial interference. And yet another poor idea was the business of the singers continually unfurling scrolls with captions and moralizations—silly, distracting, and utterly unnecessary.

Charon ferrying hooded bodies across the Styx into the underworld was a good touch. But Blin never sufficiently defined the location of the two shores of the river Orpheus is trying so desperately to cross. Instead of creating some kind of dramatic impediment to Orpheus’s quest to rescue Euridice, some tension, Blin let Orpheus sashay across the stage and, suddenly, he was in Pluto’s palace. A climactic moment in the opera was simply passed over quickly.

Amanda Forsythe as Poppea and David Hansen as Nerone in Monteverdi's L’incoronazione di Poppea at BEMF. Photo Frank Siteman.

Amanda Forsythe as Poppea and David Hansen as Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at BEMF. Photo Frank Siteman.

In L’incoronazione di Poppea (at the BU Theatre), which is Monteverdi’s singular cross between romantic comedy and vicious political satire, tone is crucial. This was Monteverdi’s last opera, which he composed at 75, some 35 years after Orfeo. It must have had some real meaning for him. But this production, last seen here in 2009 and looking its age, seemed more like a fashion show than a work dealing with serious issues—manipulation, passion, political ruthlessness. Blin never seemed to find the right tone—or any tone. First this happened; then that happened. For the most part, the singers responded intelligently to each moment, but nothing we saw on stage gave Monteverdi’s complex irony any sense of overall design or focus.

Poppea was phenomenally well sung, especially by the astounding Australian countertenor David Hansen, Nerone (Nero), whose voice has breathtaking power and thrust (and he can act!—what a petulant future monster he conveyed), and Boston early-music favorite Amanda Forsythe, as Poppea (they were recently superb playing the same roles in Handel’s Agrippina with Boston Baroque). And repeating his role from 2012 was rich-voiced bass Christian Immler as the wise and dignified Seneca, first Nero’s advisor then forced by Nero to take his own life. Excellent too were Shannon Mercer as the tragic Ottavia (Nero’s queen, banished to make way for Poppea), sweet-voiced countertenor Nathan Medley as the rejected Ottone, lively soprano Teresa Wakim as his devoted Drusilla, and refined tenor Zachary Wilder as the poet Lucano (Lucan)—Nero’s rival and (possibly) lover, their relationship never sufficiently explored or clarified (or invented!) here.

There are additional reasons I found this production essentially empty and soulless. One of the great moments in Monteverdi—in any opera—is “Oblivion soave,” the sublime lullaby sung to the sleeping Poppea by her old nurse Arnalta. It’s a moment of unexpected quietude, a brief escape from the constant calculating and plotting. Listen to this YouTube clip of the late Mexican contralto Oralia Dominguez, Arnalta on the famous 1964 Glyndebourne recording:

In both BEMF productions, Arnalta was Laura Pudwell, a talented comedienne with a somewhat hard tone. Blin had her upstage, spreading out a blanket for Poppea, then coming down to the footlights, where she sang the lullaby as she paced quickly back forth along the edge of the stage, far from Poppea and making nothing of Monteverdi’s soothing ululations. So much for intimacy, tenderness, or quietude—an extraordinary passage thrown away.

One of the most ironic moments in Monteverdi is the scene where Seneca is first informed that he has fallen out of Nero’s favor. He knows he must commit suicide. His loyal acolytes lament his doom. But they also confess on the side: “Better him than me.” Blin and the music directors didn’t seem to get that disconnect and Seneca’s friends sang both responses with the identical lugubriousness.

Soprano Nell Snaidas, in the “pants” role of the over-sexed, Cherubino-like page Valetto, chirped one of Monteverdi’s most charming tunes, “Sento un certo non so che” (“I feel a certain je ne sais quoi”), but she wasn’t helped by the awkward tits-and-crotch groping with Erica Schuller as the maid Damigella. Was this supposed to be an example of 17th-century “authenticity”?

At the end comes the exquisite love duet between self-satisfied Nero and the now triumphant Poppea (Monteverdi and his sophisticated audience surely knew how relatively short-lived this happiness would be). “I gaze at you… I enclasp you,” they sing, their music entwining. But Blin had them—until the very last bars—standing at opposite sides of the stage gazing not at each other but at the conductor, or out into the audience. Then, at last, Poppea was wrapped in Nero’s arms, and as the music reached its final cadence, he turned to look at us. But how much more telling this gesture would have been if Blin had the lovers embracing from the beginning of the duet, as the words they sang indicate.

I admire Stubbs and O’Dette no end. But because they are members of an essentially conductorless chamber ensemble (surely fewer musicians than Monteverdi would have wanted in 1643), there seemed no one sufficiently in charge to let the music breathe, or really change character instead of just speed and volume.

The one completely new production was Il ritorno d’Ulisse, which Boston Baroque did only last year in a semi-staged version (that recording has just appeared). To my mind, although far from perfect, this was the most successful of the three BEMF Monteverdis. The stage design this time had a real point of view, with descending clouds and rolling waves, gods, allegorical figures of blind Time, Fortune, and Love, and its central figure of Human Frailty—sung affectingly by Canadian tenor Colin Balzer, who also sang Ulysses. Not the most startling idea, but a genuine one, both earned and felt.

In Ulisse, Blin’s blocking still seemed largely high-schoolish. I’m not sure why Blin had Ulysses sit down when he should be towering over Telemachus in one of Monteverdi’s most powerful scenes, in which Ulysses reveals his true identity to his son. Or why the three suitors try to string Ulysses’s bow by stretching the string rather than bending the bow—after the lullaby the most ineptly staged scene in all three productions. There was also much chuckling over the men’s Hiawatha-like side-braids. Yet all these odd lapses seemed minor rather than part of a consistently misguided pattern, and the fundamental melancholy of the aging Penelope and Ulysses came through.

The men in Ulisse were pretty consistently excellent, but I was disappointed with Mary-Ellen Nesi (Penelope), whose tone seemed to drain from her entire lower register, and Danielle Reutter-Harrah (Melanto), whose pretty voice seemed to run out of steam at the end of almost every phrase.

Part of the charm of seeing all three operas in repertory was hearing so many singers in different and different size roles. Tenor Zachary Wilder, as Telemachus, a major role, confirmed the strong impression he made in the small role of Lucan in Poppea. Christian Immler, so warm and solemn as Seneca, was in Ulisse the nastiest of Penelope’s three suitors. Sharon Mercer was equally effective as the grand Ottavia and the messenger delivering the news of Euridice’s death in Orfeo. Aaron Sheehan was as perfectly suited to the title role of Orpheus as to the featured role of Eurymachus in Ulisse. And Amanda Forsythe put just as much energy into the small role of Juno in Ulisse as she gave to her star turn as Poppea. Laura Pudwell, so disappointing as Poppea’s nurse, was a lot better as Ulysses’s nurse. Jason McStoots’s soft-edged tone was a better fit for Apollo (in Orfeo) than Jupiter (in Poppea) or the rough-hewn shepherd (in Ulisse)

I had hoped that seeing all three operas in one week might reveal something new about them I didn’t know. And there was indeed considerable pleasure in experiencing the vast emotional range of these masterworks: the youthful energy of Orfeo, for all its tragic grandeur; the deep resignation to “the gods,” despite the happy ending, underlying everything in Ulisse; the almost cynical melodic indulgence and sheer gorgeousness of Poppea—Monteverdi’s apparent delight in his own inventiveness at the age of 75, all the pleasure he was taking in having grown so knowing about human behavior, even at its most evil. But what I got most vividly from these particular productions was that Monteverdi is really hard to do well, and that the more thought about what a composer really wants, and the more thoroughly a stage director’s imagination is coordinated with the music, the more effective the performance. And I think I already knew that.

Lloyd Schwartz

About Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of three poetry collections and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and, most recently, The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Dr. Schwartz’s writing also appears in our sister publication, The Berkshire Review for the Arts, especially in the summer, when he visits Tanglewood and other festivals in the Berkshires. Click here for a list of them.

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Norman

    Great article. Any chance of a correction of my name? Daniel, not Donald!

  2. Lloyd Schwartz

    My apologies to Daniel Norman, whom I remember well as Chairman Mao in Opera Boston’s Nixon in China.

    PS. I should also mention one of the most memorable opera performances of the season, even though it was a concert version of only a single act of an opera. But what an opera–and what an act!

    It’s been decades since any musical organization in Boston has come to grips with Wagner’s Siegfried, in some ways the most challenging of the four operas in his Ring Cycle. So it may not be surprising that, after all he has accomplished with Mahler, Benjamin Zander would turn to the even more epic Wagner. And it shouldn’t be surprising that in scaling the Everest of Siegfried’s Third Act he has brought to Boston some world class singers, especially soprano Alwyn Mellor, who must have one of the most sumptuous voices of anyone singing Wagner today, combined with the profoundest sensitivity to Wagner’s poetry.

    And it shouldn’t be surprising that Zander led a gripping and noble performance, keeping this massive act in constant motion as it built inexorably to the final heroic love duet between Siegfried (heldentenor Stefan Vinke) and Brünnhilde.

    But what some people might find surprising is that Zander’s orchestra, playing on the highest professional level, was the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, made up mostly of teenage players. But what players! I wish more “professional” orchestras played as thrillingly and with as much commitment as they did.

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