A View of Boston
A Tale of Three Operas
I ended last week with three very different operas here in Boston. On Thursday, the Boston Conservatory of Music put on a nicely designed, lovingly directed production of Britten’s Albert Herring. Based loosely on a Guy de Maupassant short story Albert sends up English small town blue stockings who stage an annual May Queen pageant, finding themselves unable to find a young woman of acceptable virtue in the immediate area. Their choice falls on a May King in the person of Mamma’s boy Albert Herring who is mortified by the whole experience. Albert proceeds to use the cash part of his prize to go off on a toot, stay out all night to return home a happier, wiser and far more independent young man, to the chagrin of all.
The sets were inspired by Victorian photographs, the costumes were satisfyingly full of high Victorian frou-frou, Lady Billows even had a most appropriate Victorian figure. David Powell who sang Albert possesses a high, clear, sizeable lyric tenor and admirably clear diction. The orchestra did well by the score under Bruce Hangen’s buoyant direction.
On Friday, the second Boston Lyric Opera performance of Eugene Onegin was a study on the depths of romantic passion. Stephen Lord ignited a deeply felt, exciting performance. In the pit, horns and trumpets had a very good night and everyone on stage and in the pit appeared to be “on.”
Designer Bruno Schwengl and director James Robinson created a lovely romantic world backed by a stand of tall white birch with furniture and props as required. The look had almost certainly been influenced buy the current MET production (Mme. Larina’s party featured an oval of chairs within which the guests gossiped and danced, and very little else, for example) but had much to say on its own. Robinson made a point of linking Tatyana and Lensky as equal victims of Onegin’s alienated inability to feel or give in a relationship. She had always with her the romantic novel and he had always his little notebook; during the cotillion when the chorus was focused on the off-stage dancers, only Tatyana and Lensky were left in the oval of chairs, each nursing hurt inflicted by Onegin. A wonderful touch was to have the servant girls hang out a laundry of white bed sheets to dry on the way to picking berries and for Tatyana to hide among them in panic at Onegin’s approach. After shooting Lensky dead in the duel, Onegin bowed formally to the two seconds, carefully picked up and brushed off his coat and hat and strode coldly from the scene as if nothing disturbing had happened.
Schwengl’s costumes were richly detailed, flattering and sharply distinguished as to class and character. As with the emotions of the principals, white and black predominated, white in acts one and two, funereal black in act three. Not all of the action was “realistic.” Some was poetic and indicative of the psychological situation of the characters at any one time. When Tatyana enters in the final scene she comments that she feels again like a young girl waiting in panic for Onegin and breaks the face of a table clock as if time no longer exists.
The cast was a strong one. Maria Kanyova’s slender, angular body and features suited a still gawky teenager perfectly. Her wide-ranging voice, secure top and slightly Slavic sound sounded fin in the music and she tore into the phrases with passion or a lovely delicacy as required. She has remarkable dynamic control. Garrett Sorenson’s Lensky was probably the favorite of the audience. The upper middle and top of his voice have a brilliant spin and freedom that create a satisfying buzz in the ears and he phrases beautifully. The lower middle and bottom are not yet fully developed and need work, but his potential would seem to be enormous as there is no sense that the voice has been overused or abused in any way, and the basic sound is very beautiful. Completing the main trio, Mel Ulrich has the vocal color and affect for the anti-hero. A bit more power in the biggest moments would be welcome but he didn’t force or distort the line at any time and the voice is all of a piece from top to bottom.
Dorothy Byrne and Josepha Gayer worked well together as Larina and Filipyevna. Both have strong lower ranges and their opening scene registered sistinctly against the off-stage duet of the two girls, something that does not always happen. John Cheek’s Gremin had warmth and dignity but his voice has dried significantly and a persistent unsteadiness undermined the first part of the aria that is essentially his whole part. Because the lowest notes are still solid and full, he concluded successfully. Elizabeth Batton’s vibrant mezzo and volatile personality worked well for Olga. Frank Kelley either decided to sing Triquet with a clinical depiction of a very old man’s voice or is losing breath and solidity of tone. Either way, legato suffered and there were many intrusive breaths in the middle of lines.
On Saturday night a real novelty–Robert Schumann’s Genoveva, produced in concert by Emmanuel Music in an effort to show that the opera is viable musically and dramatically and deserves revival. A similar effort for Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella a couple of years ago only pointed up the static nature of that pretty but unexciting work, but Genoveva is something else again. Schumann unquestionably knew how to shape a scene and, at the same time that Wagner premiered Tannhauser in Dresden, was experimenting with monologs that developed from or segued into scenes, rather than producing a string of closed form arias. The prelude to the final act prefigures the feeling if not the harmonies or chromaticism of the third act of Tristan.
In structure, Genoveva seems to have looked to existing works for some guidelines. Once the gender of the rescuer and the rescued is reversed, act four is structured exactly like the second act of Fidelio. Genoveva is led to a desolate place to be secretly executed by two minions of the villianous Golo; a hunting horn fanfare alerts them to the arrival of her husband, who frees her; the set then changes to the first scene of the opera where a local official (baritone) and a jubilant chorus greet the couple and praise their heroic qualities.
James Maddelena’s baritone has become darker and more powerful over his long career and sounded wonderful as Count Siegfried. As his wife Genoveva, Sara Pelletier created a most attractive character with her shimmering lyric soprano and lyrical phrasing. Frederick Urrey handled Golo’s high tenor lines with ease after a bit of a warm-up period and Krista River made the most of the sorceress Margaretha in whom the program notes see a prefiguration of Klingsor. The role would probably benefit from a more dramatic voice than Ms River’s smoothly lyric one but in a moderately-sized venue she was able to score all the necessary points. David Kravits gave strong support in tow roles. Veteran conductor Craig Smith got warmth and passion out of his cast, chorus and orchestra. The audience’s reaction to the opera built steadily all evening, ending in genuine enthusiasm. Genoveva is viable indeed.