Intermezzo: The New England Chamber Opera Series presented an intriguing program, “Boys’ Night Out,” on January 21, 2011, at The Church of St. John the Evangelist, that combined premieres with pre-existing songs and a newly staged version of a song cycle. Artistic Director John Whittlesey founded Intermezzo with a vision of producing contemporary chamber operas, many of them commissioned for the organization, and bringing together many of New England’s most exciting singers, directors and composers.
“The Andrée Expedition” by Dominick Argento was actually written as a song cycle for a single singer with piano. In this performance, however, it was reconceived as a chamber opera with the essentials of a set and three baritones splitting the vocal part (whose text is, after all, from the journals of three men). Recounting the amazing story of the fatal 1897 Swedish expedition that attempted to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, the tale is a mélange of nationalism, zeal for exploration, quixoticism, obsession, denial, and ultimately, heroism. S. A. Andrée, Nils Strindberg, and Knut Fraenkel were portrayed by David Kravitz, Sumner Thompson, and John Whittlesey, respectively. The unobtrusively imaginative stage direction was provided by Kirsten Z. Cairns, and the vivid musical direction and piano accompaniment by James Busby. The lighting and the set, consisting largely of one great hanging sheet and several smaller ones symbolizing the balloon but also evoking shrouds, were the work of William A. Fregosi.
The three characters are initially clearly distinct: Andrée, the eldest and team leader, is the voice of authority (indeed, he makes several pronouncements from the church’s pulpit); Strindberg, the youngest and in love, is the most passionate and energetic; and Fraenkel, the scientist and realist, makes clear-sighted, candid observations about the expedition and his cohorts. Yet interestingly, as the odyssey gradually proceeds to its fatal conclusion, the three characters become less distinct as they become ever more dependent on each other; although the three speak only in the third person, the singers subtly convey the deepening bonds between them. Still, even at the end, when Fraenkel confronts his approaching death after having seen his two associates perish before him, he is mystified about his own motives for joining the expedition. The cycle is given symmetry by Fraenkel’s question in the first and then penultimate sections: “I, Fraenkel, I measured the winds and I plotted the stars and asked myself over and over again: what attracted me to the North like the trembling needle of a compass?”
Argento’s music, though using tone rows, is firmly rooted in a romantic aesthetic and thus often less astringent than such music usually is. There are, as well, strategically placed moments of sweet diatonicism: when Strindberg is writing affectionately to his fiancée; when Fraenkel recounts a beautiful hallucination; or when Andrée describes the three singing the Swedish national anthem (quoted, of course) on the King’s Jubilee Day. Though some have been tempted to compare this cycle to Schubert’s Winterreise, aside from hibernal settings, the two pieces have little in common. Argento’s conception is hardly tragic: “That Andrée, Strindberg and Fraenkel failed to reach the North Pole in their balloon [and] died in the attempt is not the essential fact of their drama. The most important point is that they made the attempt, fully aware that a successful outcome was virtually impossible. And that they did so — their journals and letters show — with courage, humor, strength and grace is, for me, as significant an achievement as actually reaching the Pole would have been. Consequently, I regard their expedition not as a failure ending in a wintry death but as a glowing affirmation of life, a triumph of the human spirit.” Even at the somber ending, the excellent work of the four distinguished musicians left this listener admiring the characters’ strength and tenacity.
The next piece, a world premiere, was a one-man chamber opera De Profundis with music by eminent local composer Thomas Oboe Lee and libretto assembled by Jesse Martin from the homonymous epic letter by Oscar Wilde. In early 1897 the ruined playwright, incarcerated in Reading Gaol, was writing to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (although this staged production is set after Wilde’s release, when he is “dying beyond my means” in Paris). The text encompasses a fascinating mass of contrasts: recriminating versus forgiving, overwrought versus calmly philosophical, despairing versus hopeful. Lee’s music likewise is highly varied. The opening chords evoke a world-weary cabaret song; during a later Cri de Coeur, the piano part is strongly reminiscent of Henri Duparc’s powerful La vague et la cloche, which deals with the agony of human existence; and during a more optimistic moment it quotes Gabriel Fauré ’s graceful Le papillon et la fleur. By coincidence, very near the end, Wilde notes, over funereal chords, that he is a mystery to himself, in terms astonishingly similar to those of Fraenkel in the previous piece: “The final mystery is oneself. When one has . . . mapped out the seven heavens, star by star, there still remains oneself.” Whittlesey, as Wilde, and Busby modulated the many mood changes of the piece, conveying Wilde’s depression without the jarring shifts of manic depression. Lee’s music elegantly merged the high drama of opera with the intimacy of art song.
The closing piece, “Suit Suite,” is a patchwork of four songs by different composers whose unusual unifying theme is clothing. Beginning and ending with two pre-existing songs, it is filled out with two others newly commissioned by Kravitz. The first song, “Zipperfly,” with words and music by Marc Blitzstein, is sweetly comical: the earnest adolescent character, heartily sick of hand-me-downs, chants incantations wishing for a new suit with that height of 1920s fashion: a zipperfly. Kravitz mostly stayed understated, letting the words and music work their comic charm.
“Delight in Disorder,” with text by Robert Herrick, was a commission from James Yannatos. The piano introduction of seemingly random notes set the scene well, taken up by a voice part with constantly and widely changing range and dynamics to celebrate many forms of rumpled clothing which “do more bewitch me, than when art is too precise in every part.” The other commission, Andy Vores’s “Ode to Clothes” then came crashing in with powerful chords. Pablo Neruda’s poem was set almost patter-song fashion, so one was grateful for the care Kravitz took over enunciation. The gist of the poem is not merely that “clothes make the man” but also “the man makes the clothes.” Ultimately the two are one, living together and dying together. Towards the conclusion, the music becomes gradually calmer, accepting mortality, but with one last surprising burst of energy at the very end.
The program ended with a song popularized by Barbra Streisand in the 1960s, “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,” music by Sam Lewis & Victor Young, words by Fred Whitehouse & Milton Berle. In this wholly comic number, Kravitz had a mischievous sense of fun, with energetic keyboard support from Busby, that received the audience’s hearty approval. From the philosophical to the agonized to the deliciously snarky, all the “Boys’ Night Out” personnel created a fine program, satisfying on all counts.