Rossini’s Tancredi at Opera Boston

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Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Rossini

by Gioachino Rossini

Conducted by Gil Rose
Directed by Kristine McIntyre
Scenic and Costume design by Carol Bailey

Ewa Podleś – Tancredi
Amanda Forsythe – Amenaide
Yeghishe Manucharyan – Argirio
DongWon Kim – Orbazzano
Victoria Avetisyan – Isaura
Glorivy Arroyo – Roggiero

Opera Boston consistently devotes a great deal of care and expense into casting vocally and dramatically excellent singers appropriate for their roles. Music Director Gil Rose maintains a strong orchestra, and he is an impressive musician and conductor in his own right. Budgetary restrictions are more apparent in sets and costumes—this in turn touches the stage direction as a whole. In last year’s season, for example, the first act of Der Freischütz was perfectly viable, while the Wolf’s Glen scene was pretty much a shambles, a seemingly a desperate attempt to make the most of inadequate resources with precious gimmicks. Shostakovich’s The Nose was more successful: brilliant direction and stage design were noticeably, but acceptably compromised by budget limitations. As impressive as the intelligent programming and musical results are, a hint of well-intentioned “making do” remains in the physical production, and that was painfully apparent in Opera Boston’s recent production of Rossini’s youthful opera seria, Tancredi.

Caramoor’s concert performance of Semiramide relit an old enthusiasm for Rossini in me, and I find it almost impossible not to relish a performance of any of his operas. His musical language is difficult to penetrate for post-Wagnerians, but once one understands the range of expression contained in his superficially monotonous harmony and conventionalized figural language, a resplendent world of fantasy and truth opens up to the listener. Tancredi also closes my seasonal path of discovery which began with his last Voltairean subject for an Italian audience, Semiramide.

Opera Boston went beyond its usual policy of assembling excellent singers (who often return, forming a loose repertory company), to engage an international star, the great Polish contralto Ewa Podleś, to sing Tancredi, a role she has sung at La Scala and in many other distinguished houses. Madame Podleś was surrounded by some fine singers, well known to Boston audiences: Amanda Forsythe as Tancredi’s beloved, Amenaide, Yeghishe Manucharyan as her father, Argirio, and Victoria Avetisyan as Isaura. I can still remember the vivid performances of Manucharyan and Avetisyan in The Nose, and Forsythe’s in her frequent Boston Early Music Festival performances. On the one hand Tancredi became a “star turn,” which in one way is unexceptionable, since it brings in unique qualities, but on the other, it sets a standard that is hard for a cast to match in any consistent way. Podleś’ strong presence, her impressive acting skills, and her unforgettable contralto voice, which is both fascinating because of its unusual timbre, expressive, and very beautiful, once one has acquired the taste, set her in the highest ranks, and she rather overpowered the others on stage, I’m sure without trying to. At this advanced point of her career her voice remains consistently bright throughout her range, down into her expansive lower register, which, lacking any sort of dark edges, has a luxuriant, almost fruity character. One might think that this thoroughly feminine instrument might make trouser roles difficult for her, but her dramatic use of it and her mature understanding of the illusion she has to create, draws us in. Her vocal power, her flexibility, and the elegance of her musicianship make up the rest. She was totally in control of her characterization to the point that I suspected that she had walked into this production as a free agent and was following her own best judgement.

Victoria Avetisyan brought her alluring, velvety mezzo-soprano, a truly gorgeous voice, to Isaura, Amenaide’s confidante. Also a compelling actress, she was able to infuse her voice with a vulnerable quality that was most affecting, as she attempted to guide and help her mistress in her mortal situation. Victoria Avetisyan is a truly wonderful young singer, and I’ll follow her future performances eagerly. Yeghishe Manucharyan displayed a handsome dark tenor voice as Argirio, Amenaide’s father and ruler of Syracuse, as well as a solid technique and fine acting. His voice, at least that night, was not strong on top, but he managed to finesse high notes so skilfully that their absence was barely noticeable. Amanda Forsythe sang Amenaide with a great sense of style and a glowing, silvery soprano. Her precision and flexibility in runs and ornaments were impeccable. Her voice is not enormous, however, and her pregnant condition may have made her more cautious than otherwise. Her Amenaide lacked some of the fire and theatrical flair necessary in a complete Rossini heroine. The program notes and other materials stated that the production wished to stress Amenaide’s strength of character, and I’m not sure this always came across, partly because she is under arrest through most of the second act, making her necessarily passive in many situations, but this is more a fault of the production. It is always a pleasure to hear Ms. Forsythe sing. DongWon Kim was the least successful of the principals. He sang with a fine, dark bass voice in his solo numbers, and his sense of phrasing and the shape of the line was excellent, but he tended to disappear in ensembles, and his portrayal of the villain, Orbazzano, was blustery and two-dimensional.

Gil Rose conducted the small orchestra with his usual understanding, lively rhythm, and sense of color, but Rossini calls for even more color, as well as intensity and weight, and these were lacking. This was not on a par with his impressive achievements of last season. Perhaps The Orchestra of St. Luke’s lively playing under Will Crutchfield in Semiramide at Caramoor this past summer was still too vivid in my memory.

The uneven acoustics of the Majestic did some damage. In the first act Mme. Podleś’ lower register occasionally parted company with her body and floated to the top of the proscenium, then, suddenly, as her line moved up, the voice reentered her body. This was corrected after the intermission, however. At the time it sounded like amplification, but I am told that Opera Boston does not use it. The Majestic was built in 1903 as a multi-purpose hall, and opera was on its original agenda. The theaters and music halls of the Gilded Age are a marvellous asset today, and we can only be thankful that they are being preserved. The Majestic is even more interesting and pleasing than most of these, but, like its contemporaries, it has its acoustical problems. I think we should recognize the dilemma in this. If Boston had a spiffy new opera house with top-notch acoustics, we would doubtless miss the splendor of old theaters like the Majestic.

The real weakness of the performance was Kristine McIntyre’s production and Carol Bailey’s costume and stage design—quite possibly the worst I have seen in opera. Before the production began the audience had to stare at a dismal wall of yellowish brick and a multicolored interior wall which fused together into a similar dismal hue, all resembling more the courtyard of a decrepit housing development than a Sicilian fortress. When the action began and the stage lights came on, the color improved somewhat, but the vagueness and general dowdiness of the sets persisted throughout the evening. The warring factions of Syracusans appeared, one dressed in ill-fitting double-breasted suits and fedoras, the other dressed in brown uniforms of a fascist cut. One could not imagine a more clichéd, childish reduction of Italian society in the eleventh century or at any other time. Does a fractured, conflict-ridden community of any period need this kind of comic-book interpretation to be understood? And visually, the effect was no more appealing than the yellow brick wall behind them. Tancredi appeared in a frock-coat, which, in the 1930’s context, made him look like an elder statesman than an exiled knight. Amenaide appears in a scruffy blue terry cloth bathrobe, which, in her prison scene, is doffed so that her pregnancy can be displayed to the audience. Ms. McIntyre, upon discovering that Ms. Forsythe was six months pregnant, decided to write it into the libretto. Orson Welles, when he learned that the costumes for his film of Shakespeare’s Othello would not arrive at their location in Mogador, improvised a brilliant murder scene in a bathhouse, where no costumes were necessary at all. Welles improvised a haunting and exotic visualization which captured the essence of Shakespeare’s scene, or at least a good part of it, while McIntyre introduced a detail that Voltaire and Rossini’s librettist, Rossi, left out. A letter was potent stuff in the 18th and 19th centuries. The other principals were not in a position to do this, but, as strong actors, they held their own, with the exception noted above.

The worst aspect of the production was the way in which the action was allowed to fall into two parts. Once Orbazzano was killed, the gangster suits and the uniforms disappeared, in order to indicate a happier state of existence for the city. However, these costumes attracted so much attention that there was not much to look at afterwards, and not much compelling stage action. Hence the first part appeared to be about the suits versus the fascists, and the second about the much less interesting—and extremely unpleasant—relationship between the temperamental middle-aged gentleman and the young expectant mother. This business between the two seemed anticlimactic and episodic. Only tuning this out and concentrating on the music made it less boring. The thought kept returning that a concert performance would have been much more satisfactory. McIntyre made the primary mistake of drawing attention to her didactic interpretation rather than the opera, which does not in itself need to be reinterpreted as social commentary.

Opera Boston is a lively and valuable institution, but it will not come of age until the acoustical problems of the Majestic are solved (successful acoustical renovations are not unknown), and until it engages production staff who are worthy of their singers, barring, of course, Regieoper, in which the stage director takes over the whole endeavor. At Opera Boston the music comes first, and it should always remain that way. These growing pains are all the more reason to support Opera Boston as generously as you can.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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