The weekend of May 14 and 15, 2011 marked a number of happy firsts: the world premiere of the chamber opera A Place of Beauty, music by Robert Edward Smith and libretto by William A. Fregosi and Fritz Bell; the first collaboration between Intermezzo: The New England Chamber Opera Series and The Chamber Orchestra of Boston; and the first outside group(s) to mount a production in the fine, newly renovated theater at The Boston Conservatory. The one-hour work, enthusiastically tonal and melodic, is scored for eight instrumentalists and seven singers who were elegantly conducted by the COB’s Music Director, David Feltner. The opera is an affectionate salute to the life and work of Isabella Stewart Gardner and is notable for her iconoclastic behavior and humor as well as some symbiotic moments of genuine pathos. Though a work that seems certain to be enjoyed especially by future Bostonians and art lovers, it also seems to fetishize concision unnecessarily; there are several points where expansion would, in this reviewer’s opinion, strengthen the piece musically and dramatically. In traditional opera, one can generalize that recitatives move the story along whereas arias pause for reflection and sustain a mood. A Place of Beauty might have even more beauty and emotional impact if time were taken to insert some extended arias.
We are plunged straight into the story with virtually no prelude or overture. The scene revealed to us is the Gardner Museum on March 18, 1990 in predawn obscurity, moments after the largest art heist in history. As several sizable empty frames tell their painful tale, they also act as portals through which the shade of Isabella (soprano Barbara Kilduff) is drawn back to her violated museum. Just behind her is the composite character “Boston Matron” (mezzo-soprano Janna Baty showing her comic flair alongside attractive vocalism) who even in the afterlife continues to voice the opprobrium of proper Boston society for Mrs. Gardner’s outrageous New York customs. Mrs. Jack may have wholeheartedly adopted Boston in the form of its symphony orchestra and Red Sox baseball team, but she saw no reason to conform to Boston Brahmins’s outmoded social strictures, especially those applying to women. In her reaction to the Matron we get a quick précis of her philosophy of life: “What can’t be helped must be endured” (an interesting pre-echo of Brokeback Mountain’s “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it”); “I go my own way and cannot accept limits”; and “Life’s great adventures are not just for men.”
Hard on the heels of the exasperated Matron we are introduced to Jack Gardner (bass-baritone Paul Guttry) as he woos Isabella. If the character of Jack in the opera seems somewhat pallid beside his flamboyant New York bride, it was likely superficially true of the original people as well. But it would be well to bear in mind that for late nineteenth-century Boston, Mr. Gardner was quite the free-thinker as well: it is clear in this scene that he finds Isabella’s resistance to conformity one of her most attractive traits. The courtship was subtly and touchingly sung by Guttry and Kilduff. This scene, however, is the most vulnerable to the charge of “telescoping.” Brief moments later we enjoy the comedy of Isabella in the same breath informing her now-husband of her pregnancy and her intention to attend a boxing match. The couple dance a sweet pas de deux for perhaps a minute, and then the audience must figure out that some years have elapsed, the Gardners have become parents, and have subsequently suffered the loss of their child. Even assuming the audience has read the supplied synopsis, this is dramatically jarring as well as a bit confusing. Considering the reverberations this tragedy had through Isabella’s life, it seems the perfect opportunity to “pause and reflect” in an extended aria.
Two years after this trauma, Jack takes Isabella to Europe where they visit art galleries and the Paris salon of renowned couturier Charles Worth (baritone Paul Soper). Still oppressed by grief, Isabella is initially indifferent to the clothes she is shown, but gradually recognizes a new opportunity to provoke the Boston Brahmins and is remarkably revitalized. Soper’s calculated flamboyance in portraying Worth credibly reignites Mrs. Jack’s sense of mischief as she orders several new sets of clothes with plunging décolletages and raised hemlines (exposed ankles — shocking!). Worth was supported by two young assistants, capably sung by Jacquelyn Viña and Salvatore Atti.
Back home in Boston, though, Isabella feels in need of a larger life-purpose than merely raising bluenoses’s blood pressure. With Jack’s personal and financial support, she hits on her passion for art as the solution, deciding to build a world-class collection and give it to her adopted city. The Gardners make another trip to Europe to begin the process, meeting with an American art dealer who lives in Italy, Bernard Berenson (tenor Ray Bauwens). Like his client, Berenson is a larger-than-life character, and Bauwens reveled in the musical and dramatic opportunities afforded him. Berenson is entirely frank with the Gardners about the shady techniques he employs to get great works of art out of Italy, in an arietta delectably reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan: “A soupçon of skullduggery backed by a hint of thuggery.”
Isabella’s plan is to renovate the Gardner’s home to properly display the burgeoning collection, though Jack suggests building a separate museum, modeled on Venetian palazzi she had adored. When Jack suddenly dies, his wife undergoes the second great crisis of her life, and she pours out her sorrow in the most beautiful, plangent music of the opera, vividly expressed by Kilduff’s singing in duet with the solo clarinet. Again, the only shortcoming in my view was that I wanted a more extended aria. Mrs. Jack’s new purpose (arguably rather too quickly conceived for credibility) is to honor her husband’s memory by building the museum (“When have I ever said ‘can’t’?”).
For the opening of the museum, we see Isabella in the striking outfit (kudos to Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley) immortalized by John Singer Sargent: the black dress with the wasp waist, daringly low décolletage, and strands of pearls around her neck and hips. Even the Boston Matron turns up and, though she finds the museum “ostentatious”, has to admit it brings positive attention to Boston and is “well done.” She even presents Mrs. Gardner with a nosegay and shakes her hand. Will wonders never cease? At the heartwarming conclusion, Isabella steps in front of the famous “halo” backdrop used by Sargent and is transported through time back to 1990, when the opera began, and she expresses optimism that her missing “children” will one day be returned. It is a compliment to the creators and performers of A Place of Beauty when I express my desire to hear expansions of the existing material, ideally with the same performers and crew.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. Currently, he sings in the choir of Trinity Church and accompanies the Boston Choral Ensemble under Miguel Felipe.