in: Reviews

May 10, 2009

Opera Boston: The Case for Pertinence over Authenticity

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One of the most prevailing criticisms of the opera world today is how common it has become for opera companies to take gratuitous, and often anachronistic creative license in the production of pre-20th-century operatic works.  Many argue that a sense of authenticity has been sacrificed to raise the level of familiarity with the general audience, and ultimately, to raise ticket sales.

Being somewhat of a subscriber to this mentality myself, I went on May 5 into Opera Boston’s production of Bedrich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride skeptical of their decision to set the opera, which was originally in a late-19th-century Czech Bohemian village, in a 1930s post-Depression-era immigrant community in the United States Midwest. The text, for the most part, was translated to English. The sets and costumes were spectacular, despite that they were representative of a period a half-a-century after the composer’s death.

Yet after all of the reworking of the setting, translation of the text, and modernization of the characters, the opera was magnificent. The orchestra, lead by Gil Rose, not only played beautifully, but captured the essence of the Czech folk roots of Smetana’s score. Jennifer Aylmer and Patrick Miller were fantastic, and opera veteran James Maddalena truly made this comic opera an actual comedy. Act III was nothing short of spectacle, with fantastic choreography and direction by Daniel Pelzig.

It was only after the opera was over that I was forced to revisit some of my prejudices against inauthentically produced operas. The Bartered Bride is one of the most important and popular Czech operas, but is still rarely programmed over the German and Italian operatic domineers. Could the opera have communicated Smetana’s vision to an audience of Bostonians this well with projected English subtitles under a Czech sung text? Would an American audience identify with an entirely unfamiliar Central European stage set? The amount of character in the music itself is enough to carry the weight of the original cultural context. Perhaps a valuable experience for anyone sitting in the Cutler Majestic on Tuesday would have been lost had the opera erred on the side of authenticity.

It is no surprise that the current economy is the focus of the media, and we can rarely turn on the television or radio without being reminded that “we are in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” The light-hearted nature of the opera added an entirely new dimension to the production when set in a post-Depression U.S. For those of us who still feel inclined to spend an evening in an opera house, concert hall, or theater: maybe seeking out the elements of the arts that remain pertinent to us throughout centuries and across continents is just as important, just as valid as the historical insight that more veracious opera productions have to offer.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University

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