Summer Operas: Opposite Poles at Bard SummerScape and Boston Midsummer Opera
By Ethel Smyth
Fisher Center, Bard College: July 34, 2015
American Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – Leon Botstein, music director
Director – Thaddeus Strassberger
Erhard Rom – Set Designer
Kaye Voyce – Costume Designer
Louis Otey – Pascoe
Katharine Goeldner – Thirza
Neal Cooper – Mark
Sky Ingram – Avis
Dennis Petersen – Tallan
Michael Mayes – Lawrence
Kendra Broom – Jack
Peter Van Derick – Harvey
If I were one of those opera aficionados who thrives on adding unusual operas to a list, I’d be in heaven. I saw two opera productions this summer — not by Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, or Mozart, but by Friedrich von Flotow and Edith Smyth — and I’d never seen either of them before. One of them was typical summer entertainment, a light and charming comedy, in a modest, stripped down production; the other just the opposite — a grim tragedy that looked as if a lot of money had been thrown at it. I saw both productions on their opening nights and have heard and read reports of later performances that suggest improvements, especially in the singing; so some of my reservations may stem from a certain unreadiness for prime time.
Dame Edith Smyth (1858-1944) was a British composer (and bisexual suffragette), who is actually the only woman ever to have an opera produced at the Metropolitan Opera (a one-act opera called Der Wald, in 1903), though her singular distinction will finally come to an end in the 2016-17 season with the Finnish spectralist Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. The opera that scholars regard as Smyth’s masterpiece, The Wreckers (1906), had its American premiere with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at Bard College back in 2007, and this summer Botstein and the Bard SummerScape Festival presented this country’s first full-scale production.
Smyth’s opera is about an appalling practice that dates back to the 18th century. The “wreckers” in the opera are part of an impoverished community in Cornwall that subsists on retrieving the lost cargo from coastal shipwrecks — some of which were actually he result of someone sending misleading signals that caused storm-tossed ships to founder, regarding their nefarious work as God’s will. There was a recent news item about the recovery of the “lost” notebook Thoreau kept when in 1850 Emerson sent him to Fire Island to gather information about the shipwreck in which Margaret Fuller drowned only 300 yards from shore. Thoreau learned that there were “wreckers” with rowboats who refused to rescue the victims. The hero of Smyth’s opera and his lover (the ethically challenged minister’s young wife) are ultimately executed by the community for undermining their “business” and breaking the law of God by sending real rescue signals.
Botstein begins his program note by stating that “it is hard to imagine an opera whose argument is more pertinent to our times.” Well, maybe not all that hard, though the moral dilemma certainly makes a powerful subject. The music has a roiling energy that’s reminiscent (sometimes all too reminiscent) of the thick orchestral writing of early Wagner (think Flying Dutchman), Richard Strauss, Elgar, and Zemlinsky. A long watery orchestral interlude at the beginning of the second act, right out of Debussy, is one of the few places where the music isn’t bellowing. There’s a great deal of choral singing, which foreshadows the complex communal voices in Britten’s half-century-later Peter Grimes, though without Britten’s personal stamp. I wish Botstein had spent more time modulating the volume — he forced some of the singers (at least on opening night), particularly heldentenor hero Neal Cooper as the heroic Mark, to strain so hard his voice was blown off pitch, at times into virtual tonelessness. (The Times, reviewing the third performance — quite accurately, I thought, in all other respects — was a little more positive about Cooper.)
Another problem is the libretto, which Smyth’s lover Henry Brewster originally wrote in French. His English translation is grotesquely rhetorical (“Thy fair body’s treasure dost yield to me”; “And if thy flesh ere joined to mine be dust”; “Mark, you know not what wind blew me hither”; “To love is to die and new to awaken”) and obviously a challenge to sing, let alone hear.
An exciting scene during the overture graphically depicts a shipwreck — flashes of lightning revealing a stage littered with bodies, wooden crates, and a broken mast. But set designer Erhard Rom never disposed of those crates, which left no playing area (none!) on the stage floor and made merely traversing the stage not only awkward but hazardous. Director Thaddeus Strassberger, who staged Bard’s mannered production of Meyerbeer’s The Huguenots in 2009 and Opera Boston’s godawful Spanish Inquisition version of Beethoven’s Fidelio in 2010 (so awful Strassberger doesn’t even list it in his bio), at least had one inspired idea — getting the bodies offstage by covering them with a gigantic shroud-like mainsail. After that it was mainly stock melodramatic blocking.
I got very confused in the first act. Who was that old gray-haired lady sitting downstage right (on a crate, of course), dimly lit and knitting like Madame Defarge? Though I had studied the plot summary, between the turgid libretto, with supertitles that were too small and went by too quickly, and the clumsy blocking, I found the interactions of the characters hard to follow. Turns out, the gray-haired lady was deep-voiced mezzo-soprano Katherine Goeldner, playing Thirza, the adulterous young wife of the minister, and her wig (credited to J. Jared Janas) was actually blond — only not in JAX Messenger’s complex lighting design, at least not from where I was sitting (a few days later I ran into an acquaintance who was at the same performance and had exactly the same impression).
As Avis, the girl the hero dumped for the more ethically minded Thirza, flame-haired Australian soprano Sky Ingram gave what was probably the best-rounded performance, both vocally and dramatically. Baritone Louis Otey, in a strong performance of Pasco, the minister, had to take his curtain call striding two separate crates.
Finally, the opera devolves into melodrama. If you think of the ending, with the lovers tied to separate boulders in a cave (filled with crates!), waiting for the tide to come in and submerge them, as a kind of Liebestod (“Our last ecstasy, thy embrace, oh sea!”), Smyth’s music compared to Wagner’s, or to Verdi’s in Aida, in which the lovers are buried alive, just isn’t memorable enough.
Music by Fredrich von Flotow
Libretto by Friedrich Wilhelm Riese
Boston Midsummer Opera
Tsai Performance Center, Boston University: July 29, 2015
Stage Director – James O’Leary
Music Director, Conductor – Susan Davenny Wyner
Scenic Designer – Stephen Dobay
Lighting Designer – John Cuff
Costume Designer – Elisabetta Polito
Jason Budd – Plunkett
Eric Barry – Lionel
Joanna Mongiardo – Lady Harriet/Martha
Stephanie Kacoyanis – Nancy
David Cushing – Sir Tristan
Nothing in the Viennese composer Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha (1847) is remotely as serious. The only thing it has in common with The Wreckers is that they both take place in 18th Century England. It’s a comedy about class. A highborn young English lady is so bored she decides it would be fun to go to a village fair with her friend. They take the country names of Martha and Julia, and they get indentured to two half-brother farmers. Until Martha changes her mind. It’s all contrived to the point of silliness. But the opera has a lovely, engaging score. You probably know some of the tunes even if you don’t know where they’re from. It was just right for Boston Midsummer Opera, which has specialized in lesser known comic operas.
The most famous song is the farmer Lionel’s tenor aria “Ach! So fromm” (“Oh, so devout!”) — in this production sung in English: “One lovely night”). It’s even better known in Italian (“M’appari” — “She appeared to me”) because Enrico Caruso sang Lionel at the Met and later recorded it. Almost no tenor has ignored it since. It’s a song with particular sexual resonance for Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, who has a lady friend named Martha. The appealing tenor Eric Barry made it the high point of the production, singing it beautifully if a little lacking in elasticity, at least on opening night.
The other chestnut is a famous Irish folk melody with words by Thomas Moore that von Flotow effectively incorporates into Martha, “The Last Rose of Summer,” which is first sung by Martha herself, but is brought back several times in several different keys. Structurally it’s the most important number in the opera. Soprano Joanna Mongiardo, who has a pretty tone, seemed to treat it more dutifully than caressingly, and her blurry diction made it very hard to get any of the words (no supertitles). A lost opportunity. Several people told me they were more impressed with Mongiardo’s two later performances.
I found mezzo-soprano Stephanie Kacoyanis a little dreary when I heard her as Lennox Berkeley’s St. Teresa of Avila in Odyssey Opera’s evening of short monodramas, but as Martha’s companion, Julia, she was delightful, comfortable on the stage, with warmth in her voice and good diction to boot. David Cushing’s usual qualities of good diction and a robust bass voice were in ample supply in an unusual role for him, the limp-wristed fop Sir Tristan, Lady Harriet’s absurd cousin and suitor. Cushing was one of the production’s several victims of a bad hair day, his head buried under a ridiculous wig. (Lionel’s wig did no favors for Barry, either — why a farmer would wear a wig in the first place remained a mystery, not explained by Lionel’s turning out to be of noble birth.) And bass Jason Budd, perfectly cast as Falstaff in Boston Midsummer Opera’s Merry Wives of Windsor, was excellent as Plunkett, Lionel’s half-brother, though his exuberant loud top notes in his tribute to beer lost color and depth.
In his program note and in his pre-opera conversation with witty critic Richard Dyer, stage director James O’Leary, who teaches music history at Oberlin and actually seems to have more experience as an academic (with a specialty in Broadway musicals) than as a director in his own right, talked about the opposition of romantic and comic style in von Flotow. But I couldn’t really detect any stylistic differences in the production itself. One of the things this production lacked was a real sense of any style. The staging was efficient and amusing without ever being inspired. Besides two large garish flowers with “Richmond Fair” written on them, there was almost nothing about the production or Stephen Dobay’s largely abstract set design (a backdrop of interconnected lozenge shapes) that suggested England. The comic scene in which Martha reveals her ineptitude at spinning fell flat because no one on or off stage seemed to know anything about the workings of a spinning wheel. On the narrow Tsai Center stage, the minimal choreography by Baroque dance specialist Ken Pierce seemed pure high school. This was obviously a low-budget production, but what was lacking was imagination not money. Money doesn’t always help, though I suppose imagination can be expensive.
What — of course — most made Martha so thoroughly engaging and touching, was BMO’s music director Susan Davenny Wyner. She had her work cut out for her, since the opera had to be abbreviated and the large orchestra reduced in size. Her cuts were largely judicious. And while for a moment the first notes of the familiar overture sounded thin, by the end of the overture we had been gathered up into a world of the tenderest feeling. Davenny Wyner shaped whole acts with the same insight and charm and rhythmic life with which she injected individual phrases. For all their limitations, Boston Midsummer Opera productions are always worth attending because Susan Davenny Wyner is so confidently at the center.