A self-proclaimed booby and a supposed boor are the protagonists of the two operas by Dominick Argento presented yesterday afternoon by Monadnock Music at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, New Hampshire. Directed and conducted by Gil Rose, the concert showcased outstanding performances by the orchestra and by singers Aaron Engebreth, the sole part in A Water Bird Talk, and Heather Buck, James Maddalena, and Frank Kelley, in The Boor.
The operas are being recorded today in Boston. That is welcome news, but somehow, Boston must be treated to this concert this fall.
Although composed about 20 years after The Boor, A Water Bird Talk began the concert. (A good decision, as it turned out.) With an opening that the audience only dimly realized was the beginning of the concert, recorded birds began chirping, à la Robert J. (Lurtsema). Call it a slow wake-up call. Onto the stage — simply set with an upright piano (back to the audience) on one side, a slide projector center stage, and a dais with microphone on the right — strode the lecturer, in Madras jacket, khakis, and bow tie. Immediately, the audience was treated to his amplified throat clearing. The mood of humor established at the onset continued almost unabated (complete with the old reversed-slide bit), but it slowly dawned on the audience that the speaker’s gradual baring of his anxieties was turning what we presumed at first as a farce into a tale of humor at someone else’s desperation.
The brilliant score of this farce-turned pathos, by Dominick Argento, predominantly using both winds and brass and occasional solos from lower strings, seemed more like chamber music; indeed, there was just one player for most of the wind and brass instruments. With this makeup, Argento conjured lush lyricism, mimicry, courtship, nightmare, . . . A particularly beautiful requiem-like passage with tremolo violins and a beautiful cello solo (Rafael Popper-Keizer — who else?) was followed by the flute (Sarah Brady), then gentle timpani, then sustained solo note from the flute, then entrance of more winds, into a lullaby-like ending with cello and piano, a recorded Grebe, then plaintive English horn in a yearning lyric passage. This was followed by a brief recorded call of the Mourning Dove (point taken). Brilliant.
Then the explosion, from the wife we never see. One backstage shriek is her only “part” in this drama, but the protagonist informs us that she is referring to “the booby. That is, me.”
Particular notice must be given to Alison d’Amato, whose perfect timing and light, syncopated touch, enlivened several fine passages, Bartòkian in places, neo-Baroque in others. D’Amato currently is Visiting Professor at University of Buffalo, but most of the other superb musicians are from the rich Boston-based pool.
The Boor opens with a prelude, a, composite of Baroque-inspired, Rossini-esque, and 20th-century orchestration for a felicitous indication of what was to come. For a highly humorous ending, the orchestra stops shy of what would be the last note, the resolution of a musical phrase, pauses for two beats (or so), and then comes plink! plink! from the piano. The set for this opera is a suggestion (a free-standing door and window, a few pieces of furniture) of a Victorian parlor; beyond is a sweeping landscape, a large blow-up of a Dutch painting (?), symbolizing one assumes, the closed environment of the widow’s life and what lies beyond.
Tenor Frank Kelley’s character, the servant Luka, shuffled in, again setting the tone of humor; but in this opera, the humorous tale ends happily. James Maddalena, as the Boor, was in fine voice, as was Heather Buck, as the Widow Tamara.
The Widow and the Boor argue over a debt her dead husband owes the Boor, and it soon devolves into a threatened duel. The Widow, however, knows nothing about guns. So, in one of the most winning moments among many in this opera, there is a charming duet between Maddalena and Buck, a back-and-forth between lush lyricism (in dim light) suggesting their increasing warmth toward to each other, and the quick, no-nonsense gun instructions (with greater lighting) from the Boor.
Luka enters to find the Boor and Widow in an embrace. As he leaves the happy scene, Luka, who has shuffled through the entire opera, exercises a comedic leap at just the right moment. Leave it to Kelley.
The main problem with the production was audibility. Many of the superb lines were just plain hard to hear — though certainly no fault of the singers, whose enunciation was dead-on. Laughs came most predictably from the first six rows or so, where clarity is sharpest (and balance often sacrificed), so perhaps it simply was due to the theater’s acoustics.
A word on the theater which was built in 1923 for vaudeville to plans by architects Harold Mason and Steven Haynes of Keene and Fitchburg. The auditorium is plain, but the proscenium arch is an elaborate over-the-top Adamesque Colonial Revival confection of white and blue with prominent gilt swags and column capitals. More history is here.
Argento seems to this reviewer the true inheritor of the Puccini ethos — creating premonitions (the lecturer at the beginning tells us that his wife warned him about “embarrassing her” again), composing lyric passages, wrenching emotion (some in the audience were close to tears at the fate of the lecturer) and sympathizing with the emotions of his main characters — including the Boor. In programming the later Argento opera first, Rose saved the happy ending for last.