Light. Delightful. Ensnaring. Buoyant. A good chuckle. Overall, an enjoyable trifle. Praise to Odyssey Opera for the successful opening night. After their unveiling splash in September (2013) with Wagner’s Rienzi, Gil Rose and the company took a lighthearted approach with their June Festival. Wednesday evening’s opera, Giuseppe Verdi’s Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), the composer’s second and generally overlooked opera, was initially scorned by the public: the premiere in 1840 at Milan’s La Scala was dull, causing all remaining performances to be cut from the season. A tough crowd one had to deal with in the 19th century, a stature similar to a contemporary sports mob: rowdy aficionados, personally decorated box seats with culinary amenities, all topped with the casino gabbling in the foyer. In their defense, the libretto does leave one wanting, lacking in a depth of chuckle perhaps. But here is the honor and burden of Odyssey Opera’s mission: to “affirm opera as a powerful expression of the human experience” through programming lesser-known works of great composers as well as works from new composers. Inventive horizons await this youthful and already essential Boston-based opera company.
After gazing on the synopsis, one is set for a comedy of mistaken identity, teasing flirtation, and trickery; another weakness in the opera is its abrupt start, discontinuity, and rather quick turn of narrative. The former and soon-to-be re-crowned King of Poland, while exiled in Paris, must seize his opportunity in secret. He employs his friend Cavalier Belfiore to take on his role as the undercover king. While “reigning” as king for a day Belfiore is the guest of Baron Kelbar. Belfiore is struck with compassion, being forced to pass judgment on two ill-fated marriages, those between the Baron’s daughter to Count Ivrea and his niece to the city treasurer; one of these marriages Belfiore has a personal investment in. Through basic comedic virtues the story unfolds with a healthy dose of sympathetic turmoil.
What the piece lacks in narrative it gains in musical maturity. No this is not the great Verdi of the later works (Requiem and Rigoletto) but his music in Un giorno does resemble latter characteristics: flowing melody, tightly wound choruses that give rhythmic as well as motivic interest, and a sprightly orchestral flair. Moments of genius from a mere 27 year old!
Odyssey Opera presented a lean show; the staging consisted of a single stone railing, decorated with noble white bouquets, all enclosing only the most necessary tactile items. Above hung a large picture frame that set us in a place of nobility, a sort of Steinbeckian omniscient narrative atop the main thread. Brilliantly conceived by Joshua Major and his design team Amanda Mujica, Christopher Ostrom, and Stephen Dobay, this mise-en-scène and the blocking therein allowed for a strong focus on the music. If you do decide to see this production (last chance on Friday, June 13th) be on the look out for the genius still-frame moments, a small example of the many that speckle this production. In this case, the lighting proved extremely helpful, freezing each moment in a cool blue hue with a single spotlight over the parenthetical monologue. At the forefront, the blocking itself moved with relative ease, non-distracting but certainly room for improvement. Each principal showed conviction, portraying it through motion, but the only ones who fully inhabited their roles were David Kravitz and James Maddalena who could have been confused as method actors.
The highlights of this opera come from the buffa duet characters Barone di Kelbar and La Rocca (the Treasurer), played by Boston regulars James Maddalena and David Kravitz, respectively. Maddalena’s voice is wide and assured, needing no extra effort, having a character that permeates his entire body. Kravitz is a gem, giving La Rocca certain Leporello-like oddities. His voice is brilliant, hosting a ping that gives surface to his voice as well as those around him. Perhaps it was their familiarity with the Boston audience but their presence and comfort were inspiring to say the least, certainly the strongest performances of the evening.
The hero (Cavalier Belfiore) Michael Chioldi made his Boston debut with this production; he arrived with a great sense of the stage, a strong and confident sound, full-bodied with breadth at the edges. Yeghishe Manucharyan played La Rocca’s nephew, Edoardo di Sanval, and did so with a tone of narrow bore, without an ounce of tension in his neck, his high and small bones ringing brilliantly: it is as if one dropped the needle on an Enrico Caruso recording. Chioldi and Maucharyan are “like father like son,” giving an enduring virtue to their heroic duets.
The women principals were both new to the Boston community: Amy Shoremount-Obra as Marchesa del Poggio and Jessica Medoff as Giulietta di Kelbar. Shoremount-Obra was incredible, another vocal highlight of the evening. She performed with a tone steeped in longevity, endurance, and agility, saving the air from any unnecessary sweetness; this is a voice of true substance. Medoff was quite different, a more serious tone with a sweet spot in the middle of her sound sphere. Her tone was orange at times but when giving it her all it came out as purple, full blown and energetic, heard most splendidly in her second aria of the opera.
The two secondary leads, Daniel Kamalić as Delmonte (a sort of page) and Christian Figueroa as Count Ivrea, both held their weight against the other leads. The chorus was delightful and quick on their collective feet saving two minor slipups in the staging (a brief tipping of a coffee pot and a slight trip while removing the decoration), creating a sound appropriate for the dry and rather small Huntington Theater but lacking in overall balance; they could have erred on a weightier upper range, dare I say! Gil Rose and his orchestra played with a firm grip on the temporal and musical space, complementing the vocalists with ease while maintaining their essential presence.
Now, to the topic of humor in this opera: at its premiere there were some that shouted “not funny.” Today, with our fair-weather comedy films that are quick to please one might agree with such a catcall. At first, I too was skeptical. Why is a king consulting on issues of local marriage? Why are these characters so easily swayed? Does the humor dig deep or simply skim the surface? What is funny about this opera? But questioning the opera’s depth suggests that it exists to create depth. But that is not the case. The core of this humor lies within its ability to give a first-person experience of everyday battles we all deal with: petty jealously, teetering secrets, and disproportionate anger. This comedy is not an overwrought glimpse at our image in a mirror. We know what how it is like to be Cavalier and Marchesa but we are not painstakingly self-deprecating about it. The power and delight of this opera comes from a humor that is truly light-hearted.
Joshua Major, Gil Rose, and the cast did the best they could with the material they chose. Though, it does beg the question, are you realizing your niche mission? The task of procuring, curating, and producing obscure and avant garde music is noble and perhaps necessary, but this production lacked the luster and inspiration expected from company’s larger goal of “affirming…the human experience.” In this light, the audience was cheerful and attentive, slightly slow to respond at the conclusion, but encouraging and impressed nonetheless. A brilliant performance of a less than brilliant piece. Worth an evening? Absolutely!