Here’s a weird coincidence. Two composers, nearly two centuries apart, almost polar opposites, were both 19 when their first operas were performed. Both operas are named after central characters whose three-syllable names begin with A. And both just received terrific Boston performances — simultaneously, in different parts of town.
There the coincidence ends.
Handel got to do his first opera, Almira, because another composer (Reinhard Keiser, now forgotten except by music historians) abandoned the project, leaving the producers with scenery and costumes already in the works, and a libretto. A second violinist in the orchestra, he jumped in to write the music. There’s even a legend, probably based on fact, that carrying the score in his coat pocket may have saved his life in a duel (Handel dueled!). Almira was a huge hit. The music was fresh and wildly colorful. So good that Handel cannibalized some of its best numbers to re-use in later works. The opera was the centerpiece in this year’s biennial Boston Early Music Festival, and it got one of the festival’s very best productions in its 17 seasons.
My problem with past BEMF productions has been that the stage director, Gilbert Blin, who also designs them, has stuck too closely to historical text-book posing, substituting eye-catching stage pictures and gorgeous costumes for living action. Then two years ago, with the resurrection of an obscure opera by an obscure composer, Agostino Steffani’s Niobe, with Boston soprano Amanda Forsythe in the title role and early music superstar countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Amphion (the king who would rather listen to the music of the spheres than rule his country), suddenly everything came to life. The statues began to move! In Almira, that fluidity was taken still farther. Even the choreography (by Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante) became thoroughly integrated into the action. Instead of Baroque puppets bouncing and hopping around the stage, the dancers were characters, wittily commenting on the action, arguing over their diverse opinions. One lady-in-waiting clearly didn’t know how to read (another had to turn her page right-side up).
It helped that Almira is essentially a romantic comedy. After nearly four hours, the lowly hero, about to be executed for aspiring to marry a noblewoman, reveals the ruby heart he’s always worn around his neck and suddenly he’s royalty (this was more than a century and a half before Gilbert & Sullivan). Even the ambitious peacock who dumps his fiancée because he would rather marry the new queen of Castile, turns out to be the hero’s brother and finds the girl of his dreams. After the endless silly complications, the dénouement takes barely ten minutes and opening night at the Festival the sudden happy ending got a big laugh. Handel would soon learn how to pace the action better. And get deeper — much deeper — into the psyches of his characters. Still, the talent was already there.
BEMF’s production values were as lavish as ever, but with a new cohesiveness. Blin’s recreation of 18th-century flats, hinting of medieval Spanish architecture, moved smoothly sideways and up and down, models of elegance and the perfect backdrop for Anna Watkins’s magnificent costumes, lavish (as in all BEMF opera productions) yet refined into mostly Castilian black and gold (and blue for Queen Almira). The staging was full of delightful touches. At one point quite literally. During the intermezzo at the beginning of the third act, while the nosy clown Tabarco (Jason McStoots) was standing in front of a curtain, singing a suggestive song about a petticoat that has fallen out of a package he’s dropped, suddenly the disembodied hand of dancer Karin Modigh emerged through the curtain and began to caress his neck, arms, and body.
Tabarco begins this little scene with the traditional servant’s complaint about hard work (think Leporello). His words are “Hinschleppen nach der Post,” which were translated in the supertitles Blin’s assistant stage director (and former BEMF lead singer) Ellen Hargis as having to “schlepp all these letters to the Post.” This daring colloquial freedom seems a fresh new direction for BEMF. Someone close to the production was suggesting the importance of Hargis’s contributions since she became Blin’s assistant director two productions ago.
If Almira was never less than a pleasure to watch, it was also a pleasure to hear. BEMF musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs led a performance that was both lively and spacious, unrushed in the slow arias and almost manic in the brilliant fast ones. Some of the best music is in a symbolic ballet in the last act, in which the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa are competing. The music for the Asia section is particularly memorable. Two years after Almira, in 1707, Handel recycled it first for an aria, “Lascia la spina” (“Leave behind the thorns”) in his very first oratorio, Il Triunfo de Tempo e del Disinganno (“The Triumph of Time and Truth”), and then most notably again in his first opera in England, Rinaldo— the famous aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let me weep”). The original instrumentation for this dance has been lost, and Stubbs and O’Dette fleshed it out with enchanting finger cymbals for the dancers.
Throughout, the BEMF Orchestra, which includes some of the world’s great “early” musicians, played impeccably and dazzlingly, sitting in front of the stage in a wide ellipse around their “candle-lit” scores. Phoebe Carai’s sobbing cello obbligato for the Princess Edilia’s big last-act “flow-my-tears” aria was one of the long evening’s highest peaks. But there was almost equally striking obbligato playing by Gonzalo X. Ruiz (oboe), Kathryn Montoya (recorder), and concertmaster Robert Mealy. I particularly enjoyed the castanets in the sarcastic duet between Edilia and the faithless Osman.
Handel supplies a range of arias: rage, lamentation, seduction. Most of them are in the German translation written for Handel. But not all of this translation survives, so some of the arias are in the original Italian version. Even though Handel didn’t actually set the music to any of the Italian, the Italian sounds more natural than the German (maybe because we’re just more familiar with Handel in Italian). And they include some of Almira’s best music.
Twenty-five days before the opening of Almira, BEMF announced that the Argentinian soprano Veronica Cangemi, who was slated for the title role, dropped out “due to complications with her visa” (you can hear her impassioned rendition of “Lascia ch’io pianga” on YouTube). The Bavarian soprano Ulrike Hofbauer, who had a smaller role, stepped in and learned the challenging part. She delivered a creditable but restrained, rather unimpassioned performance. Her pretty voice has a typical early-music “spike” in it, her high notes shooting out of the lyrical line at a slightly higher volume than the rest.
The real star of the evening was, no surprise, soprano Amanda Forsythe as the Princess Edilia. A beloved Boston figure, she’s got magic in her sparkling voice, and she seems incapable of singing a note that isn’t completely in character. She excels in parts that show wit and gumption (as did Steffani’s Niobe, who was almost a villainess). Edilia is probably the most complex character in Almira, the princess who finally abandons her obsession for the faithless Osman for a truer lover, who actually prefers her to the queen. Her rage aria, which closes the second act with an explosion of passionate coloratura, deserved the cheers it received.
The rest of the cast was also superb: tenor Colin Balzer as the lovelorn and honorable secretary of the Queen; tenor Zachary Wilder as the ambitious Osman; baritone Chrstian Immler as the queen’s pompous guardian who is also Osman’s father (he has an impressive falsetto, too, which got another big laugh); smooth-voiced and sympathetic baritone Tyler Duncan as the King of Mauretania, who prefers the princess to the queen; and soprano Valerie Vinzant as Bellante, another princess (the one with the eye-patch). They were all accomplished both vocally and dramatically. Popular Boston tenor Jason McStoots was an endearing clown, who emerges as a Silenus figure in the Ballet of the Continents. He was surely encouraged to be uninhibited, but his performance seemed too broad to be as funny as it could be.
Special mention needs to be made to Ellen Harris, music professor emeritus at MIT and our reigning Handel expert, who wears her learning most gracefully. Her pre-opera talks (one can be viewed on the BEMF website) and historical notes are models of how to inform those who are either completely new to this kind of music or already quite knowledgeable. BEMF is lucky to have her. We all are.
And then there was Rachmaninoff. His early gypsy opera, Aleko, got a rousing production from the enterprising young Commonwealth Lyric Theater (Alexander Prokhorov, artistic director; Olga Lisovskaya, executive director) at Brighton’s Center Makor, a community center essentially catering to the local Russian-Jewish community. Two years ago, the company (then called the Boston Vocal Arts Studio) produced Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. I’d heard that it was good, but heard too late. This time I had plenty of notice, and I was knocked out.
The one-act opera, based on Pushkin’s poem “Tzygany” (“The Gypsies”), was Rachmaninoff’s graduation exercise for the Moscow Conservatory. The plot is reminiscent of Carmen — Aleko, a respectable young Russian, falls in love with a seductive gypsy. They live together, but his conventional possessiveness impinges on her sexual freedom and she begins an affair with a younger gypsy. Aleko murders them both, and is driven into exile. Without having quite yet achieved the memorable lyrical profile of Rachmaninoff’s later works, it’s still lavishly, tunefully rhapsodic.
Stage director and choreographer Anna Kravets set the scene even before the opera started. Gypsy fortune tellers were in the lobby reading palms and predicting that we would enjoy the opera. Barefoot ushers showed us to our seats. And set designer Olga Maslova surrounded the audience with platforms holding a tent, a clothesline full of laundry, a blanket piled with musical instruments. The stage at the Makor Center is narrow and small, so some of the most vivid action took place in the aisles. And since the opera is barely an hour long, Prokhorov and composer Moshe Shulman integrated “real” gypsy melodies and dances that placed the familiar story in the larger context of gypsy life. It worked.
What galvanized the entire production was the high level of the music making. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, who is also music director of Juventas New Music Ensemble and Harvard’s popular Lowell House Opera, is a skillful and incisive musician, and she got an exciting, accomplished performance from her small orchestra. And all the singing was exceptionally good, beginning with the vigorous chorus, which included an impressive pre-teen “throat” singer (Abigail Tenenbaum) intoning a gypsy lament.
Mezzo-soprano Danute Mileika and veteran Wagnerian bass Pawel Izdebski gave strong support as senior tribe members. A treasurable Boston visitor, mezzo-soprano Janna Baty (still unforgettable as the scandalous heroine of Opera Boston’s production of Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face), seemed born to sing the melismatic music for Zemfira, Rachmaninoff’s Carmen, and she injected it with passionate excitement. Tenor Giovanni Formisano was an ideal young seducer, with a strong, ringing tone that never substituted mere power for musicality.
In the title role, the thrilling Bolshoi baritone Mikhail Svetlov created a fully rounded portrait of a lost soul, betrayed and bewildered. His magnificent voice made the walls tremble, and his final exit down the center aisle into exile was heartrending.
Clearly, everything was accomplished on what must have been a very small budget. But money alone can’t buy the dedication, the imagination, and the talent of this exciting young company.