In its substitute venue, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and the Boston Lyric Opera produced a sultry and whimsical “best hits in opera” program; given the unbearable heat and humidity, the musicians may have been the only cool operators in the Boston’s Church of the Covenant. This program was not simply thrown together for summer amusement but was rather intended as a promotional showcase of the opera company’s coming season.
BLO’s commitment to the “Top 40s” showed with the inclusion of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s La Traviata, and other favorite flavors such as Verdi’s prelude from The Force of Destiny, Rossini’s charming Cinderella, Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, and Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Cognoscenti may look instead to “Opera Annex” productions of Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová and Frank Martin’s The Love Potion.
Church of the Covenant, selected for fear of rain which never came (though it was present during the setup period), was certainly not the Hatch Shell. This made for a rather disorganized seating process; cramped, crowded, all funneled through a single entrance. As is typical of historical Boston churches this one is unequipped with air conditioning, a situation that was remedied only fitfully through folding hand fans from the BLO staff. Adding another discomfort to the heat and claustrophobia was the inability to distinguish who or what was operating this fine event. There were several folks representing partner organizations, all of whose addresses were lost among the conversing crowd, high-powered fans, all the while being over amplified by the booming church acoustic. We were all sure they meant well, we just couldn’t hear a thing.
Roaring fans thrummed, becoming a relentless backdrop as the players took their positions; BLO Music Director David Angus approached the podium with a veddy proper address to the audience, setting up the proceedings. (There is something undeniably charming about an English accent; it props up one’s statement as forever valid) He turned, cued the orchestra and they dug straight into the wrenchingly memorable opening D minor chords of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In hindsight the execution of this opening number was uncharacteristic of the rest of their performance, which was overwhelmingly immaculate, polished, articulate, topped with a decisively expressive continuity. David Angus presents himself in front of his orchestra with ease and stability and produced astounding effects; the players and conductor were communicative within the ensemble and with the vocalists, and all were in good form regarding intonation, navigating the subtleties of dynamic contrast with ease and nuance.
The concert continued with Don Giovanni’s final sextet, a moment of revelation, of celebration, of mourning and moralizing: we grow to love the Don despite his immorality, but we eventually despise him as well. The sextet of BLO vocalists dominated this scene with only slight confusion as to what was going on and who was who. Provided no supertitles or translations was unfortunate in this setting.. But the scene is transparent and the staging was well crafted enough to entertain even the most unfamiliar of audience members. They further extracted from Giovanni the “love” duet between the Don and Zerlina. Chelsea Basler and David Wadden were well paired for this task. Basler executes her sound with a narrow bore, bright, slight, tall, and slim: incredibly full and effective. You wouldn’t believe that David Wadden’s voice emanates from his slender figure. It is a large and bold production for a relatively young and maturing vocalist. You can tell that his timbre has a bright future from his ever-present ping.
Perhaps the only groggy moment of the evening came with La Traviata’s duet between Violetta and Germont. Though the performance was astounding with vocalists Anya Matanovic and Daniel Mobbs in fine form. It just goes on and on, folding over itself in a meandering through-composed swirl. With her athletic energy, Matanovic captured the audience with a projection well outside of herself, full throttle in her follow-through. Mobbs has a charming tone, a fluttering and upward tone that holds nothing in his chest. Mantanovic stole the stage with Violetta’s Act I aria, producing strong shift of emotions and a well navigated dramatic contour. Our evening’s tenor, Omar Najmi, made a brief off-stage appearance at the end, calling to his beloved Violetta. His voice has potential, a primed energy that has a cutting release. However, we were left with some wanting. The space wasn’t altogether receptive, and he had a tendency to push a little too much, distorting his natural beauty.
There was a loss of audience during intermission, perhaps only noticeable given the newly formalized setting: had it been at the Hatch Shell this would have been expected, perhaps hoped for, a sort of “come and go” procedure, an expectation which can just as easily draw an audience as it does release it. The heat may have gotten to the departees, but let us remember that with the fans and the booming acoustic, it was difficult to hear the performance.
With the second half’s commencement the blaring fans ceased and one’s ears blossomed. The orchestra opened with the prelude from Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, showcasing cohesion built through this ensemble’s collaboration the past several weeks. In contrast to the focused first half, the second explored five separate operas, seamlessly segmented with slightly helpful informational tidbits from the singers. This half seemed to showcase Sandra Piques Eddy, or perhaps it was that she simply stole the audience’s attention. What presence in character, a voice of meaning and purpose, deep and gritty, pulling the audience closer and closer. She soared above the others, blossoming bubbling and developing across her range.
Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová was a refreshing spice among the evening’s rather bland Western classical sounds. The affect was gritty, enhancing the exciting folkloric flourishes. The scene from Rossini’s Cinderella was a highlight, carried with Piques Eddy’s brilliant portrayal of the lead character. The closing moments of this concert were light and fluttery; a moment from Sullivan’s The Gondoliers and “Brother mine” from Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus with an encore of the “Champagne Toast” from the same opera. We appreciated the strong communication, nuanced expression, and clear direction.
In narrative music the individual and collective musicianship is not enough, one must trust to the guidance of a stage director. Sharon Daniels, a well-known and respected icon of the Boston opera scene, created a visual narrative that helped with some of the loss of language clarity. The direction was not ornate and complicated. It seemed rather to develop from the natural acting inclinations of the vocalists, and gave us a tasteful perspective of the narrative.
No matter how musically superb this performance was, the concert was a challenge for the imagination insofar as the content did not really fit the venue. This type of event is better suited for the Hatch Shell’s festive qualities.
Making allowances for the improvised adjustments and change of venue, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and a vocal sextet from the Boston Lyric Opera were incredible. We look forward to the Boston Lyric Opera’s coming season!