This performance was a frolic. It displayed a combination of two quite different buffo operas, and yes, it worked. Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona and Livietta e Tracollo combined, found a zany success. I had my doubts at first, but was laughing my head off soon enough. The better-known of the two, La Serva Padrona, revolves around the character Uberto, a pomposo, energetically sung by Douglas Williams. Sad Tracollo was sung winningly by Jesse Blumberg.
I need more than two hands to count the number of operas I’ve attended in Boston so far this year. Two productions by the Boston Lyric Opera, our leading company; nine (four fully staged) by our newest company, Odyssey Opera; a brilliant concert version by the BSO of Szymanowski’s disturbing and mesmerizing King Roger; all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, performed in repertory for possibly the very first time; a rarely produced Mozart masterpiece, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in a solid and often eloquently sung concert version by Emmanuel Music; the world premiere of Crossing, 25-year-old Matthew Aucoin’s one-act opera about Whitman in the Civil War, presented by A.R.T.; and the first local production of Hulak-Artemovsky’s Cossack Beyond the Danube, the Ukrainian national opera, by Commonwealth Lyric Theatre (imaginatively staged and magnificently sung). Not to mention several smaller production I couldn’t actually get to—including an adventurous new work, Per Bloland’s Pedr Solis, by the heroic Guerrilla Opera, which I got to watch only on-line, and Boston Opera Collaborative’s Ned Rorem Our Town (music I’m not crazy about, but friends I trust liked the production).
A lot of opera! But how full is the cup?
Pergolesi’s comic operas sound remarkably modern—which is to say, like Mozart. Recognizably human characters go through recognizable experiences, singing out their feelings very directly, which the music embodies in fluidly changing tempos and moods, stretching of harmony, changes of key and orchestral color. Much is accomplished through musically creative recitative—a half-spoken way of proceeding—as well as through song proper and duets (there are only two singers in each of these operas, though also some designated silent performers, to which this production added a few dancers). It is like Mozart, but sets the procedure for opera ever since, even Verdi’s with their heroic figures, Wagner’s with their gods and goddesses, Berg or Britten with their neurotics. Characters live, feel, and think—and sing—and the music moves quickly and supply and thinks, as it were, with them.
Once again the Boston Early Music Festival has shown us that elegance and energy are not mutually exclusive. As always in their performances, the superb orchestra is a leading player. At BEMF one never gets the sense that there is a divide between stage and pit. In fact, there is no pit. The players sit on the orchestra level, fully visible and physically expressive. The best exemplar of this process is leader Robert Mealy himself, who manages to seem at once gentle and passionate. I cannot say that Handel’s Almira was my favorite opera seen in the Mahaiwe, but it is a Handelian youthful adventure, and not yet quite full of sap. It is an age-old story, that of getting the right boy with the right girl. The business of the opera is a courtship process. The process must be interesting over three substantial acts for the show to work, and despite the excellent efforts of the cast, it wasn’t all the time. Through the many twists and turns, one did not sense through-going character definition. By way of comparison, one thinks of the great role of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, whose several arias pile one glory upon another and leave us with a complete, nearly Shakespearean, definition of her character. There were valiant attempts to keep Almira lively. Ulrike Hofbauer in the title role used her sizable and beautiful voice tellingly — especially the top of it — to carry us through the many ups and downs of her plight. Her sound was affecting and commanding by turns. She had a stillness which compelled you to stay with her. Colin Balzer, tenor, one of my favorite singers, has a voice of great sweetness, and his identification with the words he sings is complete. His role of Fernando, a kind of one-note Johnny, was filled out admirably even though he had to express the same sentiment repeatedly. Amanda Forsythe as Edilia used her quick-silver but warm voice to give vibrant life to the spitfire princess. I especially admired the sweetness of Tyler Duncan’s singing as Raymondo.
Among the many things I admire about Opera Boston is the consistency of their priorities. A great deal of care and expense goes 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. Opera Boston’s production last spring of Shostakovich’s The Nose was more successful: brilliant stage and costume design and brilliant direction 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.
This past Friday and Saturday I attended two operatic performances, one at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the other at Boston’s New England Conservatory, which began decorously enough, but both ended in an uproar one might have expected to find at a major prize fight. Both audiences were absolutely thrilled by what they saw and heard. I didn’t count the curtain calls, but the audience’s response to Tristan und Isolde under Daniel Barenboim conjured up legendary evenings of many years past, and the baroque and early music enthusiasts who packed Jordan Hall to attend the Boston Early Music Festival’s first annual production of baroque chamber operas was no less uninhibited in their cheers, whoops, and clapping, expressing their well-deserved appreciation of a brilliant start to an important new series. Although my account of Tristan will appear separately below, I wish to present them together, because of what they tell us about opera and its current state.