Colin Balzer as Ulisse in BEMF's production of Monteverdi's "Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria." Photo Frank Siteman.

Opera Boom: Lots of opera in Boston, but how much was really good?

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 Rogerall 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 Crossing25-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?

Marco Bussi (Shepherd), Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), and Nathan Medley (Shepherd). Photos Kathy Wittman.

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and L’Orfeo by BEMF at Jordan Hall

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 (OrfeoThe Return of UlyssesThe 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.

Heather Buck as Miss Havisham. Photo Kathy Wittman.

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

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.

The BEMF Chamber Operas 2014: Pergolesi’s La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo

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.

Amanda Forsythe as Edilia in the Boston Early Music Festival's production of Handel's Almira. Photo by Kathy Wittman.Amanda Forsythe as Edilia in the Boston Early Music Festival's production of Handel's Almira. Photo by Kathy Wittman.

A Singer’s Notes 72: Boston Early Music Festival’s Almira at the Mahaiwe

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.

Charpentier’s La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers by the Boston Early Music Society

Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of two Marc-Antoine Charpentier chamber operas took us from the playful, elegant, high baroque world of the court of Louis XIV, into something more serious and grave, and then back out again. First we were given most of La Couronne de Fleurs, a Pastoral probably not meant for full staging, where Flore, goddess of spring—well sung, and acted with spirit, by soprano Mireille Asselin—summons up the season and then proposes to shepherds and shepherdesses a contest to praise Louis XIV’s military triumphs, the winner to receive the crown of flowers of the title. After the conventional tributes are made, the production turns to the short opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, presenting it as a further entry in the poetic contest, though this is done a bit awkwardly, since the piece does not refer to Louis. The Orpheus opera seems not to have been finished by Charpentier, having only two acts instead of the usual three, and stopping with the beginning of Orpheus’s ascent from the Underworld with his lover Euridice rescued from death. We do not get the familiar incident of his prohibited looking back at her and thus permanent loss of her.

Boston Early Music Festival to Present a Marc-Antoine Charpentier Double Bill at Jordan Hall, Sat. Nov. 25 and 8 pm and Sun. Nov. 26 at 3 pm

Surely one of the great joys of being a music-lover in the present day is our rediscovery of French Baroque opera—not to mention the Italian and German masterpieces with which the Boston Early Music Festival has regaled its audiences over three decades. The amazing resurrection of Les Arts Florissants’ legendary 1985 production of Lully’s Atys this year brought that home. (They are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.) BEMF had produced Rameau’s Zoroastre in 1983. After that 18 years passed until they returned to French opera in their 2001 production of Lully’s Thésée, followed by Psyché in 2007. While these four represent the most public strain of opera in Paris, the grand spectacles produced either under royal patronage or at the Opéra, BEMF’s chamber opera series has provided a window on the smaller-scale, more private sort of performances cultivated by Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, with music by her house composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Best of 2010: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Production

This is the third year of BEMF’s wonderful new institution of annual chamber opera performances. These not only help us get through the alternate years, when there is no main festival in June, nor any full opera production, they set a standard for authenticity and for the imaginative recreation of centuries-old practices and aesthetics in such a way that an audience of cultivated non-experts can enjoy the performance and walk away exhilarated. This was certainly the mood in late November last year, when BEMF turned to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. None of the other chamber operas produced so far is particularly obscure — not John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, nor Charpentier’s Actéon, nor Handel’s Acis and Galatea. On the contrary, they are central to the history of the genre, and they are performed, although not very often. This year’s offering, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, is the most popular pre-Mozart opera of all. It fills the needs of conservatories, young sopranos or mezzos, as well as ageing divas, who wish to apply their wisdom to the tragic Queen of Carthage. We have reviewed a number of modest, but very successful productions in the Review over the past year or so.

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