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.
Two large-scale vocal works were presented at BEMF on successive nights (Wednesday and Thursday, June 14 and 15), one a work of music theater, merging opera and ballet; the other devotional but in the musical language of opera absent the staging. Composed within nine years of each other, they offer contrasting perspectives of Italian music and culture from the points of view of a French and a German composer. Both were clearly besotted with Italy, one responding to the carnival spirit of Venice with its light-hearted approach to life, love, and entertainment; and the other situated at the center of the sober religious and devotional culture of Rome. Experiencing these two works back-to-back and interpreted by many of the same performers provided a wonderfully condensed testament to the multidimensional attractions and influences that Italian opera radiated at the turn of the 18th century.
The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)
Another outing for this rambling, aging play, this time a good one, expertly cast. The play itself leaves little to the imagination, the acting is all. Nigel Gore’s King Henry was a real tour-de-force. Unflagging energy, powerful and detailed at the same time, one of the best things I have seen him do. Let me say,at the outset,that I admire the whole troupe. They had done this over the top play in the afternoon, came back a few hours later, and gave it all they had. Christine Dekker made the role of Queen Eleanor her own. She gave a super detailed performance that only now and then turned sharp.
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?
The recent biennial weeklong Boston Early Music Festival (June 14-21) drew unusual attention for presenting full stagings of all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas (Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses, The Coronation of Poppea) plus the Vespers of 1610. This in addition to the Festival’s usual 9 a.m. to midnight concerts of a great variety of music from the Middle Ages to Bach, featuring noted performers from all over the world. Enthusiasm ran high all week and audiences were large, especially for the Monteverdi events.
Hours and hours of the composer’s music in a 24-hour span. I’ve heard a lot of bad Monteverdi—valiant efforts, not enough skill. The style is fundamentally performer-dependent. In Aston Magna’s Monteverdi concert on Saturday at Simon’s Rock and the Boston Early Music Festival’s performances of the Vespers and Orfeo Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, we were able to hear these works with first-rate artists who have the right voices and the style under their belts. Half of the time, I was listening to duets by two tenors, a hallmark of Monteverdi’s larger works. These were brilliantly undertaken by Frank Kelley and William Hite in the Aston Magna concert.
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.