in: Reviews

April 1, 2011

Xanthos Steps Lively in Nez’s Balkan Chamber Opera

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Ketty Nez’s cheerfully buoyant chamber opera The Fiddler and the Old Woman of Rumelia provided heart-warming, round-the-hearth, entertainment on a snowy evening (March 31) at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline. The opera’s brisk seven scenes finds the cast in various rustic pursuits: yodeling in the mountains, singing tradition-based ditties, dancing in the village square, flirting in the kitchen, drinking in the tavern, listening to grim tales of yore, gaming and fortune telling. But Nez’ ear-catching piece does more: it offers welcome, canny glimpses — from the other side of the Mediterranean, up towards to the Black Sea — of cultural diversity, soldiers of fortune, teapot insurrection, and gossipy personal politics. How refreshing!

Rumelia, according to Turkish history, was that vast expanse that ran from Belgrade to Bucharest in the north, Corfu to Istanbul across its middle, Athens to Anatolia across the Aegean Sea. It encompassed today’s Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Greece and its archipelagos, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thrace, and European Turkey. From this melting pot, Nez has scooped a sampling of folk tunes, speared gnarly rhythms, and simmered them into a stringent but satisfying potpourri, spiced with paprika wit and wisdom.

The ample honey-hued expanse of St. Paul’s Church, Brookline welcomed the coffeehouse-sized audience of eighty, largely young adults, with few under twenty but barely a dozen of retirement age. Bare maple beams and mobiles of skeins and bobbins added to the effect of rustic simplicity contradicted by Nez’ complex, agile score over a story line that played upon the vicissitudes of fortune (Tarot readings and chance encounters)two wordless romps chased by a growling black bear and other more  sprightly interpersonal histrionics.and sprightly interpersonal histrionics.

A keen vocal quartet was kept busy with snippets of recitative, many snappy ariettas, and frequent choral stretches of overlapping lines. Tenor Gregory Zavracky was clear-voiced as a shepherd boy or aged storyteller. Elissa Alvarez, as Roma, gypsy card-reader, sang alto with strength, articulation and sly resignation. Rebekah Alexander sparkled aplenty as strawberry sprite — a voice to die for but cooking that kills — engaging in lightning repartee over high winds and glissando strings. Ulysses Thomas, baritone, beguiled as Hadjuk, with arched eyebrow and elbows akimbo, playing on female emotions when not his fiddle.

The soloists, clad in brightly red-striped traditional costumes of Macedonia and Bulgaria, sang and acted with equally festive brio. Thomas as the sportive fiddler Hadjuk and Alexander as the village coquette found especially expressive gestures and countenances as ritually teasing lovers. The resonant acoustics made it difficult to understand the sung English (not recitatives) even at fifty feet. The grim sixth scene might benefit from discreet trimming.

The Xanthos Ensemble, conducted briskly by Jeffrey Means, were (in this avatar) Brenda van der Merwe, violin (and director); Alexis Lanz, clarinet; Eunyoung Kim, piano; Zachary Jay, flute, piccolo; School of Music Leo Eguchi, cello; David Tarantino, percussion. Nez’s agile, flexible writing for sextet may recall the spare spikiness of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and the bristling ululations of his primeval Les Noces, but her harmonic language and palette of rhythms range far and wide; she draws from enticing folk tales and wedding songs and off-beat dances (7/8, 9/4) from Kodaly’s and Bartok’s Transylvania. Underwritten by BU’s Humanities Foundation, the performances were presented by Boston University presented the performances, including one at BU’s College of Fine Arts, School of Music concert hall tonight (April 1).

Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz, and about wine for Beverage Business; he lectures on jazz at Boston University, and teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music.

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