Opera and Passion: Boston Lyric Opera, Boston Early Music Festival, and Odyssey Opera

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Germont and Violetta (Weston Hurt and Anya Matnovic). Photo Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2014.

Germont and Violetta (Weston Hurt and Anya Matnovic). Photo Eric Antoniou for Boston Lyric Opera © 2014.

Is there a more passionate art form than opera? In what other mode is the uninhibited expression of feeling—tragic or comic—so central? More central than reason. Given the emotional liberation of great music, what can in a mere plot description appear to be absurd (a woman tossing the wrong baby into a fire; a “fallen woman” sacrificing her entire future and the happiness of her lover for the sake of her lover’s respectable sister; a man killing his best friend in a duel because he has flirted with his girlfriend; a nobleman secretly meeting his own wife in disguise—madness, murder, and deception) can become through music profound and moving, Revelation and Catharsis.

My major frustration with some recent opera productions in Boston comes from their absence of passion. Zachary Woolfe, reviewing the Met’s La traviata in the December 31 New York Times, lamented the facelessness of so many young American singers: “Pleasant singing will take you only so far if it is doesn’t seem to be permeated  by emotional—perhaps even moral—truth.” But it’s not only the singers who are at fault. In the Boston Lyric Opera’s La traviata, last October, Violetta, Verdi’s self-sacrificing courtesan, as played by soprano Anya Matanovic, and tenor Michael Wade Lee as her lover Alfredo, didn’t seem to have much chemistry between them. When she sang of her determination to live a life free from love, stage director Chas Rader-Shieber had her—counter-intuitively—sit down as she reached up for her high note. There was more sexual activity at a gambling party than between the two lovers, and in the most crucial scene of the opera, very little tension between Matanovic and baritone Weston Hurt, who played Alfredo’s father. This was largely the result of Rader-Shieber’s lame efforts at confrontation. The singers wandered around the stage and rarely faced each other. Hurt had the best voice, but nothing was happening.

The production itself was odd. In the second scene, a lavish country house beyond the means of the two lovers, the one bit of necessary furniture is a writing desk, on which Violetta will write her painful farewell to Alfredo. But set designer Julia Noulin-Mérat placed this scene outdoors, with a single apple tree from which Alfredo picked an apple (not in the libretto), and Violetta had to write her note lying prone on a picnic blanket. For her painful interview with Alfredo’s father, a chair had to be schlepped out into the yard—a clumsy, inefficient, and unnecessarily distracting bit of staging for a scene in which our focus needs to be completely on the interaction of the characters. The one necessary piece of furniture in the last act, Vielotta’s death scene, is obviously a bed. But here Violetta was evidently so poor she had to die on the floor. Yet she was wearing a negligée with a train maybe 50 feet long. Isn’t God supposed to be in the details?

The "Greek Chorus" in Frank Martin's The Love Potion at the BLO. Photo Eric Antonio for Bosotn Lyric Opera © 2014.

The “Greek Chorus” in Frank Martin’s The Love Potion at the BLO. Photo Eric Antonio for Bosotn Lyric Opera © 2014.

BLO’s next event, part of its estimable Opera Annex series, was a particularly welcome offering, a rare production of Frank Martin’s “secular oratorio,” his version of the Tristan legend, Le vin herbé (sung in English, with the title coarsely translated as The Love Potion), presented at the beautiful Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. Stage director David Schweizer emphasized the formal ritual aspect of the unwilling attraction of the two lovers, and there were striking stage images, beginning with two shafts of light shooting up from a pool of glowing crystals in the center of the auditorium to the dome of the temple high overhead. The chorus and soloists were dressed in Celtic-looking gray robes and dresses, and there was intriguing stage business involving ropes and copper pipes.

Martin’s score is spare—he uses only seven strings and piano—and follows the speech patterns of the narrators (there is more narration about the tragic events than direct interaction among the characters). It’s the stepchild of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, another tragic but muted love triangle with a young couple hopelessly in love despite the heroine’s marriage to an older man. But it’s the job of the director, the conductor, and the singers to create dramatic tension between the apparently cool music and the passions seething below the surface. And here is where this elegant BLO production disappointed. David Angus’s slow tempos and square phrasing, partly necessitated by the staid English translation (“Never more will you enjoy love free from pain”—how much more alluring and insinuating the libretto is in French), made this short opera seem more funereal than erotic, oppressive and interminable. And though the singing was adequate, it was also small-scaled and tame. In 1948, six years after the first concert performance, the stage premiere was conducted by the great Ferenc Fricsay and included two of the greatest singers in Europe in the leads, Julius Patzak and Maria Cebotari, singing passionately in German. And on a terrific recording you can hear on YouTube (in French, of course), with Martin himself at the piano, the music is shaped with a kind of desperate urgency absent in Brookline.

Amanda Forsythe as Serpina. Photo Kathy Wittman.

Amanda Forsythe as Serpina. Photo Kathy Wittman.

Passion may be harder to convey in comedy, but if the performers take their problems seriously, their real desperation can be a great source of humor. That’s where stage director Gilbert Blin has often gone astray with his archly stylized productions of Baroque opera for the Boston Early Music Festival (his deeply moving production of Steffani’s Niobe, the highlight of the 2011 festival, was a major exception). Last month, Blin staged a double bill of Pergolesi one-act comedies, the familiar La serva padrona (The Servant Mistress) and the rather more obscure Livietta e Tracolo. Pergolesi’s best music is probably what Stravinsky re-orchestrated in his enchanting score to Pulcinella (although it turned out that not all of the music he chose was actually by Pergolesi). Nothing in either of these operas is as infectious or delightful as any of the real Pergolesi songs and magical tunes in Pulcinella.

Blin’s “idea”—suggesting that he didn’t expect either opera to hold up on its own—was to interweave the two of them. But as a result, we got two similar passages of music—two love duets, two finales—crammed together cheek by jowl. And the mugging was so broad, I could practically feel my ribs ache from all the elbowing they were getting. “Get it?” “Get it?” “Isn’t this too cute for words?” The audience seemed to be enjoying a lot of this, and my esteemed colleague Charles Warren wrote a rather more positive review some weeks ago for this journal. But my heart was with the woman who stopped to express to me her dismay as she was leaving Jordan Hall at the beginning of the intermission. “I can’t stand this!” she exclaimed. “It’s an amateur show!”

That said, there was still especially elegant and vocally satisfying singing by soprano Amanda Forsythe and bass-baritone Douglas Williams (the memorable one-eyed monster Polyphemus in Mark Morris’s production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea) in La serva padrona, and almost as good work by soprano Erica Schuller and baritone Jesse Blumberg as Livietta and Tracollo, while music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs led a crackerjack Baroque band. Blin invented for himself an amusing silent role as a busy-body servant, who entered dusting off Stubbs’s score. The general level of the humor was exemplified by Forsythe using a mirror to check out her own derriere. At least one joke made me chuckle, when Forsythe holding up a silver plate behind her head—like a halo—rejects it in favor of a larger one.

At least one opera company gets its priorities right. One of the things I admire most about Odyssey Opera is that passion has always been front and center—from the political passions of Wagner’s Rienzi to the romantic intoxication of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, in which Met tenor Jay Hunter Morris and soprano Meagan Miller seemed to be drowning in their love for one another. Even baritone Weston Hurt, such a stick in La traviata, was here capable of conveying both passionate friendship and rage over his friend’s betrayal. And music director Gil Rose focused everyone’s attention—singers and players alike—on the seething emotional nucleus.

This was equally true in Opera Odyssey’s next two, smaller-scale ventures.

Heather Buck as Miss Havisham. Photo Kathy Wittman.

Heather Buck as Miss Havisham. Photo Kathy Wittman.

First came a double of bill of Dominick Argento single-act monodramas: his full-length 1977 opera Miss Havisham’s Fire (John Olon-Scrymgeour, librettist), the story of the eccentric recluse in Dickens’s Great Expectations (and originally conceived as a farewell vehicle for Beverly Sills), reduced a year later to one long mad scene, an independent work called Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night. Heather Buck was the aging bride, more hysterical than ever years after her cruel abandonment. Buck handled her ferocious coloratura with skill, but probably no soprano has diction good enough to overcome the demands of the florid vocal lines. Unfortunately, there were no super-titles at the tiny Modern Theatre, on Washington Street.

Argento is a master musical co-ordinator—his music crosses the orchestral richness if not the uncanny tunefulness of Puccini with the dissonant tonal angularity of, say Berg. Yet it’s completely American. His compositional virtues were in stronger evidence in the second opera, A Water Bird Talk (1974-76), another musical soliloquy. Argento’s own libretto takes the dramatic outline of Chekhov’s play On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco but changes the subject of the lecture from smoking to bird-watching, using Audubon’s Birds of America. The hero is a henpecked lecturer speaking to a ladies club and in the process of describing various birds and their habits, mating and otherwise, reveals his own marital travails. It probably goes on too long after we catch on to the double-entendre, but it’s a poignant portrait of an emotional failure, and baritone Aaron Engebreth, vocally impeccable, was devastating in conveying his character’s inner life. He made singing with feeling, even repressed feeling, seem natural and effortless.

Two weeks later, Rose and Odyssey were back with Rose’s own superb Boston Modern Orchestra Project orchestra and an admirable cast in a concert version of Tobias Picker’s Roald Dahl opera, The Fantastic Mr. Fox—semi-staged, but with witty, imaginative, colorful costumes borrowed from a recent production at OPERA San Antonio (with a number of the same cast members). The audience included many young children, and I would venture to guess that the sophisticated libretto by Donald Sturrock was over the heads of most of them. At least I hope so. But their parents surely knew what was making Miss Hedgehog (the brilliant Elizabeth Futral) quiver, especially in her snout-to-snout love duet with Mr. Porcupine. I enjoyed the sly but heroic Mr. Fox of John Brancy, the tenderness of Krista River as his devoted wife, and the charm (and vocal competence) of their cubs: Abigail Long, Abi Tenenbaum, Zoe Tekelan, and Madeleine Kline. They weren’t the only effective and affecting children in the performance. The Boston Children’s Chorus, under the direction of Anthony Trecek-King, lined up against the front of the Jordan Hall stage as a “Chorus of Trees” and sang the most haunting music in the opera. Later, they filled the aisles.

I’d also like to single out the impressive countertenor Andrey Nemzer as Agnes the Digger, a key member of the ill-fated revenge plot against the Foxes by the villainous farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (the delightful Andrew Craig Brown, Edwin Vega, and Gabriel Preisser), and offer my praise to the rest of Picker’s critters: Tynan Davis (Rita the Rat), Theo Lobow (Mr. Porcupine), Gail Novak Mosites (Mavis the Tractor), John Dooley (Badger the Miner) and Jonathan Blalock (Burrowing Mole).

No stage director is credited, but whoever didn’t do the staging did a terrific job of keeping everyone centered and heartfelt. No one on stage condescended to his or her character—or to the audience. It all came from the heart.

The performance has been recorded, so be on the lookout for a release date if you missed it—or would like a vivid memento.

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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