Rienzi, non piano

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Odyssey Opera led by Conductor Gil Rose. Photo by Kathy Wittman.

Odyssey Opera led by Conductor Gil Rose. Photo by Kathy Wittman.

Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner

Sunday, September 15 3:00: Jordan Hall

Rienzi – Kristian Benedikt
Irene – Elisabete Matos
Adriano – Margaret Jane Wray
Kardinal Orvieto – Kristopher Irmiter
Paolo Orsini – David Kravitz
Steffano Colonna – Stephen Salters
Baroncelli – Ethan Bremner
Cecco del Vecchio – Robert Honeysucker
Messenger of Peace – Christina English
Herald – Frank Kelley

Odyssey Opera Orchestra & Chorus
Conductor – Gil Rose

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).

The opera is Wagner’s first epic, a vast canvas of political machinations, personal romance, and seething crowd scenes. It’s the story of an idealistic plebeian (think Huey Long—or more darkly, one of the would-be Fascist dictators) who rises to popular power, triumphing over Rome’s 14th century aristocratic oppressors (the Orsinis and Colonnas—their palaces are still standing), but through murkier circumstances involving the Holy Roman Emperor loses his support and in the end goes up in flames with his beloved sister Irene when the Capitol is set on fire. Wagner based his libretto on a historical novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (best known for The Last Days of Pompeii). The best known music from the opera is the stirring Overture and Rienzi’s last-act prayer, which develops the slow music from the Overture. There are countless marches and a long allegorical ballet in the second act based on the Rape of Lucretia that has some of the most garishly colorful music in the entire opera. And there’s thrilling if not always inspired music for the chorus. A lot of it. In fact, 373 pages of score! Rienzi was Wagner’s most popular opera in his lifetime, taking off from its crowd-pleasing German predecessors, especially Meyerbeer and Weber, with some debt also to the conventions (and even tunes) of Italian opera. The composer himself came to disown it, and refused to have it performed at his Festspielhaus at Bayreuth (the very first Bayreuth production of Rienzi took place this bicentennial year, but not at the Festspielhaus). It’s loud and brash and long, with only hints of the future Wagner. But in a good performance, it’s irresistible.

I’ve sat through some much shorter musical events that felt longer than Wagner’s five hours. Gil Rose, conductor and artistic director of Odyssey Opera (and former musical director of Opera Boston), kept everything moving with a fire-breathing momentum that shaped the whole performance. If he was hurrying, he was hurrying to get somewhere. Who wouldn’t have been swept away by all this energy? And urgency. Everyone seemed to feel it—including everyone on stage. No one held back. This isn’t a subtle opera, neither psychologically nuanced nor transformatively mythic. It’s startling to learn that Wagner was already inventing his first truly “Wagnerian” opera, The Flying Dutchman, while he was working on this grand throwback.

The astounding chorus (prepared by chorus master Harris Ipock), about half of which was made up of Tanglewood Festival Chorus members, was really the heart of the performance. The crowd scenes. The vehement supporters of Rienzi who become the angry mob turning against him. The huge orchestral forces included particularly outstanding brasses—some of them literally out, standing backstage or providing surround-sound from the back and sides of the balcony (Terry Iverson igniting on valve trumpet, Richard Watson holding the long notes on natural trumpet).

One of the reasons Rienzi doesn’t get produced more often is that, like Meyerbeer operas, it requires a large cast of stellar singers with big voices. There are six principal and three featured roles. And you’ve got to applaud Odyssey Opera for fulfilling most of those vocal requirements.

The most complex role is actually that of Adriano Colonna, the son of one of Rienzi’s aristocratic enemies, Steffano Colonna. Adriano is in love with Rienzi’s sister and so has painfully divided loyalties. This is a “trouser” role sung by a mezzo-soprano, and if there was a star turn in this performance, it was surely Margaret Jane Wray as Adriano. Best known as a Wagnerian soprano, she also sings mezzo-soprano roles in Verdi and Berlioz. Her voice is large and full over her entire range, with a gleaming, focused, even tone, with great warmth and impeccable pitch. Her phrasing was honest and always heartfelt. Her vocal amplitude rides on seemingly endless breath. Adriano has an entire scene to himself in the third act, and Wray’s major aria, a passionate lament (“In seiner Blüte bleicht mein Leben”—“In its prime, my life fades away”), was the vocal high point of this Rienzi. She’s sung at the Met and La Scala and the Seattle Opera’s famous Wagner Ring cycle. We were lucky to hear her in Boston.

The most problematical singer was Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos, who is also on the Met roster and has sung such killer roles there as Puccini’s Minnie in Girl of the Golden West (she was a last-minute replacement for Deborah Voigt) and the ferocious Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco and is returning this season as Tosca). As Irene, she sang with an even bigger voice than Wray, but she never stopped pushing it, forcing it. This was the loudest singing I’ve heard in years—much too loud for Jordan Hall. She simply couldn’t scale back. Sometimes it was just screaming, and her pitch was, in the words of a musician friend sitting near me, “variable.” There also seemed to be little emotion behind her vocalizing. Irene sings how glad she is to be with her lover, but she didn’t seem remotely happy to be singing with Wray. The sheer volume was impressive, but not pleasant.

Of course, the central role is Rienzi himself, and in Lithuanian tenor Krystian Benedikt (Lithuanian name Vaidas Vysniauskas), Odyssey Opera gave us a refined singer with a strong, steady, attractive, well-produced voice that had a heroic ring but not a heroic dimension. Next to Wray and (especially) Matos, he seemed vocally undersized. He delivered his last act prayer, “Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab!” (“Almighty Father, look down!”), the most famous and most beautiful aria in the opera, with honest feeling, though at this point in the performance, a few rough edges were beginning to surface. I liked the gold sash he donned when he became tribune (one of the few bits of staging in this concert) and the way he folded it up so studiously when he was deposed.

Elisabete Matos (Irene). Photo by Kathy Wittman.

Elisabete Matos (Irene). Photo by Kathy Wittman.

As Rienzi’s two aristocratic nemeses, baritones David Kravitz (Orsini), who was the imposing Abraham in the Boston Lyric Opera’s American premiere of James Macmillan’s Clemency, and Stephen Salters (Colonna), who was the unforgettably uninhibited noseless hero in Opera Boston’s brilliant production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, are both new to Wagner, or so their credits suggest. But at this point in their careers, their voices have acquired the necessary heft and resonance. These were powerfully sung, eloquently articulated, and vividly acted performances—especially thrilling in the light of how these two singers with Boston roots have grown and developed. Too bad they were both killed off before the dinner break.

There were other impressive performances. Bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter, who is already an experienced Wagnerian, was the Cardinal Orvieto, who plays a mysterious role in both Rienzi’s assumption and downfall. Irmiter has had a substantial career in American regional opera, but with his commanding voice and presence he ought to be better known. Young tenor Ethan Bremner, who covered major roles for Opera Boston and has been singing big-voiced leads in smaller companies, made a strong Roman senator. And veteran baritone Robert Honeysucker, still one of Boston’s most elegant singers as he is approaching 70, was in jawdroppingly rich voice as Rienzi’s other senate supporter and betrayer. Mezzo-soprano Christina English joined the women of the Lorelei Ensemble up in the balcony delivering their pastoral message of peace. And no less familiar figure than tenor Frank Kelley was pure luxury casting as the Herald briefly announcing the second act ballet.

This concert performance of Rienzi, dedicated to the memory of George Alan Preston, a familiar figure on the Boston opera scene, was underwritten by Randolph Fuller, a former trustee of Opera Boston. When that company folded, Fuller promised that something new would rise from its ashes. The plan for Odyssey Opera is to produce a concert opera every fall, which would revive neglected but worthy works too costly to stage (like Rienzi) and follow it with a series of fully staged chamber operas in the late spring. So far, no announcement has been made concerning the spring repertoire. Still, Odyssey Opera is certainly off and running, and has given Boston’s most adventurous opera devotees a memorable and historical event.

* * *

No Exit
Music by Andy Vores

Guerilla Opera
The Zack Box Theater at The Boston Conservatory

Jonas Budris, tenor – Garcin
Christina English, mezzo-soprano – Inez
Aliana de la Guardia, soprano – Estelle
Jonathan Nussman, baritone – Valet

Kent O’Doherty – saxophone
Mike Williams – percussion
Gabriela Diaz – viola
Nicole Cariglia – cello

Nathan Troup – stage director
Julia Noulin-Mérat – scenic design
Lara De Bruijn – costume design
Dan Chapman – light design
Elisabeth Rudin – stage management
Kelsey Ann Ross – assistant director

On the other end of the opera scale, Aliana de la Guardia’s intrepid little Guerilla Opera, performing at Boston Conservatory’s tiny Zack Box Theatre, revived its greatest success: Andy Vores’s stunning single-act, four-character, four-piece orchestra No Exit, based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s claustrophobic short play about three people trapped with each other for eternity, each wanting the one thing the others can’t provide (the fourth character is a sinister butler). “Hell,” as Sartre famously says here, “is other people.”

Nathan Troup’s inventive staging (using set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat’s doorway on wheels and three pieces of rolling furniture) struck me as busier and less intensely focused than Sally Stunkel’s in the 2008 premiere, but the performers were praiseworthy, with de la Guardia repeating the role she created of the infanticide; Christina English—very different as the suicidal Lesbian than as the heavenly Messenger of Peace in Rienzi the week before; tenor Jonas Budris as the cowardly journalist; and baritone Jonathan Nussman as the underworldly valet. They all seemed to be working hard on their diction, though even more work was necessary to make Sartre’s crucial long personal monologues more clearly followable. Kent O’Doherty on sax and percussionist Mike Williams, both of whom played the premiere, were joined here by the equally sensational Gabriella Diaz (viola) and Nicole Cariglia (cello). Vores’s seductive and scary score is a wonder of musical invention. No Exit has already expanded its horizons to Chicago. It’s one of our most compelling contemporary operas and deserves more—and more frequent—revivals.

About the author

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 four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) 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 Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and 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.

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