A few minutes after the final curtain of Two Boys descended, after composer Nico Muhly received his ovation and joined the cast for their curtain calls, I think I figured out the true nature of this opera. This was the first main stage Metropolitan Opera production of the estimable Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program. Two Boys has been in the works for over five years, and had its world premiere at the English National Opera in 2011. The Met has given it serious encouragement and high-end attention. The opera has a libretto—based on an actual crime in 2001, in Manchester, England—by playwright Craig Lucas, a Pulitzer and Tony finalist; was directed by Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher (South Pacific); and conducted by David Robertson, music- director designate of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a musician especially admired for his performances of contemporary music. The intricate production design by Michael Yeargan, which includes a gloomy police office with overhead fluorescent lights, and projections of computer screens and internet chat rooms (by 59 Productions), is certainly not cheap looking (as was Yeargan’s set for one of the Met’s few other premiere’s in recent decades, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby). Care and money had clearly gone into this production.
When I interviewed Francesca Zambello in 2011 she had just been named General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. Under her predecessor’s tenure, each opera season had a unifying “theme.” Ms. Zambello quickly swore off such yearly festival themes as trite convention. Yet, in 2012, as reported in this journal, one clearly felt the bristling fervency of social activism in every aspect of production. That season was topped off with a provocative interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to a packed audience in her thrall at the Otesaga Hotel. There were probably more law professors there that day than music lovers. Her special appearance and the ethical themes woven into each opera production, made for a startling and refreshing season. Aida, Music Man, Armide and most memorably, Lost in the Stars, were narratives, each quite unique, on the ethics of outworn societal patterns in the face of political, moral or economic change.
The Collegiate Chorale, as part of their famously diverse season, will present a single concert performance of Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele at Carnegie Hall on November 6, 2013 at 8 pm. In this concert production, the Collegiate Chorale will feature Eric Owens, one of the most intelligent and impressive singers of the present day, in the role of Mefistofele, with Arturo Chacón-Cruz, as Faust and Julianna Di Giacomo as Margherita. Mefistofele is no less a vehicle for the chorus, stressing as it does large-scale ensembles, with colorful evocations of devilry and witchcraft, angelic hosts, and solid fugues.
I’ve always thought it was a terrible idea to stage opera overtures. The music is there to help set the mood for what’s to follow, to allow you to open the magic casements of your imagination and picture for yourself what’s going to happen later—and for the only time to concentrate completely on the music itself. But these days, it’s almost impossible to see any opera performance that doesn’t have a staged overture, and all too often the staging has nothing to do with the music we’re hearing (last season’s Boston Lyric Opera Flying Dutchman was one of the worst offenders in this regard). But it turns out there’s something even worse than staging an overture, and it happened at the Lyric’s new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, at the Shubert Theatre, closed October 13).
By now the word is that Anna Nicole, by Mark-Antony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas, is likely to be the New York City Opera’s last production. If the City Opera is dying, it is going out magnificently, with its greatly reduced season setting a model for opera houses in the US and around the world. The 2013-14 season, if it takes place, includes the important contemporary opera discussed here, a 2011 commission by the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, followed by a long-forgotten setting of Metastasio’s Endimione by Johann Christian Bach, a staged performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and finally one staple of the standard operatic repertory, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the final instalment in Christopher Alden’s innovative staging of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas. The schedule is small, but every opera has a vital reason to be in it.
For Bostonians, getting to hear a live performance of Wagner’s ambitious third opera, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (“Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes”) was surely a once in a lifetime experience, which is what Odyssey Opera, Boston’s newest opera company, must surely have been counting on. Too bad that even in Wagner’s bicentennial year, and for the landmark inauguration of a new company, only some 600 of Jordan Hall’s 1013 seats were filled (the top ticket price was $200) for Rienzi’s Boston premiere, in a complete concert version. But those present certainly got their money’s worth (and probably so did the local restaurants, which filled up during the two-hour dinner break in between the two parts of the five-hour opera).
In his introductory lectures, Leon Botstein is almost always engaging and enthusiastic, except when, to make an instructive point, he discusses music he knows to be inferior , and then he is at least amusing. However, before the Sunday matinee of Taneyev's Oresteia, he conveyed a certain Cheshire Cat-like excitement, as if he had something really exceptional in store for us. The air in and around the Fisher Center was charged, and one could feel it. We were not disappointed.
My collleagues have already written extensively about Emmanuel Music's performance of John Harbison's opera, The Great Gatsby, both at Jordan Hall and at Tanglewood. I won't attempt a full review, but I would like to share a few thoughts about the opera and the performance, both of which I heartily admired. As performed this year at Emmanuel Church and Tanglewood, Gatsby embodied some of the best and most characteristic traditions of American opera—the setting of classic literary texts (a speciality of Mr. Harbison's) and the mixture of popular musical and theatrical elements with an infrastructure of the most cultivated and rigorous compositional technique.