Thursday night, as the second installment of its 2014 June festival, Boston’s Odyssey Opera presented a double-bill of one act shows, Pietro Mascagni’s Zanetto (1896)and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna (1909) at a shamefully three-quarter-full Boston University Theater. While both works featured only two singers and were much lighter fare than the fall season’s Rienzi, presenting them represents another step forward and another side of Gil Rose’s stated ambition for Odyssey Opera: to explore the “lesser known reaches of the opera world.”
Italian Pietro Mascagni is known mostly for one work, the one act Cavalleria Rusticana, one of the centerpieces of the verismo movement in opera from the end of the 19th century—that musical/dramatic style that united a romantic nostalgia for the rural and rustic with sensational and sordid violence. A verismo opera will often feature ritual scenes of local color (weddings, festivals) that culminate in a physically and graphically violent dénouement. However, Mascagni’s Zanetto is, surprisingly, only half verismo, lacking the violence but embracing the nostalgia. In this brief one act drama, one scene really, the famous but aging courtesan Silvia, played by Greek soprano Eleni Calenos, encounters the youthful wandering poet Zanetto, a pants role played by mezzo Eve Gigliotti. Zanetto has been searching for Silvia, but when he encounters her he mistakes her for a noble woman and she soon falls in love with this youth, beguiled by his idealism and naiveté.
Gigliotti’s Zanetto was wonderful; her instrument is dark and gorgeously resonant. Calenos’s Sivia is charming too; the effortless manner by which she displayed the emotional life of this worldly courtesan was remarkable. Overall she sang with a nuanced interpretation, although with some of the big notes, at the very top, her voice could become slightly shrill. Stage Director Daniel Gidron wisely kept the production simple and sparse which allowed the intimacy of the work to dominate. Considering that Mascagni intended this opera to accompany his Cavalleria Rusticana in performance instead of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s equally bloody Pagliacci, one wonders if, in Mascagni’s conception of verismo, why the violence and public nature of Cavalleria Rusticana might not have been better complemented by an intimate and gentle Zanetto?
If Zanetto was nostalgic, Wolf-Ferrari’s Il secreto di Sussana was at once hilarious, fun and ridiculous. This comedy hearkens back to the Italian intermezzo genre, similar to Giovanni Pergolesi’s La Serva Padronna, with a cast that consists of a newly married aristocratic couple, Countess Susanna (soprano Inna Dukach) and Count Gil (bass-bariton Kristopher Irmiter), foiled by their mute servant Santé (tenor Steven Goldstein). Arriving at home one night, Irmiter’s lumbering Count Gil smells cigarette smoke on his wife and thinks that she has taken a lover when infact she has just been smoking herself. Irmiter’s bumbling pitter-patter is wonderfully accentuated by his physicality. During one temper tantrum he literally throws dishes around in the couple’s overly furnished Biedermeier apartment; a lovely and innovative resetting of the single basic frame set that Susanna shared with Zanetto. For her part, Dukach’s Susanna carries a pragmatic innocence that is ingenious. This would have been funny enough, but it was even more entertaining to watch her smoke onstage with the posture, habits and body language that were all too common to all of us a mere decade ago. These were emphasized and enlarged by Goldstein’s mimed silliness.
Dukack also sang beautifully, especially during Wolf-Ferrari’s parody of the high romantic, where he employed a rich level of chromaticism to depict Susanna’s devotion to nicotine. Importantly, there was no bumbling from the other “Count Gil,” that is, Maestro Gil Rose in the pit. He brought the score to life and deftly managing the incredible spectrum of musical styles heard during evening. These included in Susanna, a Rossinian crescendo that culminated with an umbrella, the repeated and broad sweeping gestures of Susanna’s leitmotivic love for nicotine and a remarkably effervescent overture, not to mention the restraint and patience required by Zanetto with its own wonderful vocal overture, sung tastefully offstage by the Odyssey Opera Chorus, serving to distance the opera from the noisy crowd even as it also seemed to draw and focus your attention to the work’s intimacy.
Both works have interesting histories in the U.S. According to Laura Prichard’s note, Susanna was produced at the Boston Opera house during the winter season of 1914 where the Boston Transcript proudly reported that it and Wolf-Ferrara’s other opera, Le donne curiose, were “given better performances than they have hitherto received, and affirmed a warmer liking for them than any other public had yet evinced.” For its part, Zanetto was first performed in the U.S. in New York in 1902. Apparently even then critics were interested in a conductor’s physical gesturing, as the critic for Art, Music and Drama wrote: “As a conductor, Mascagni is decidedly demonstrative—he is described as being as animated as the proverbial jumping jack; but he knows his art.” While you can be sure that Gil Rose won’t ever be “as animated as the proverbial jumping jack” he does know his art.