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Greek Myths & Opera at the MFA


The Altamura Painter, Calyx krater with scenes of the Sack of Troy, ca. 470 - 460 BCE. (MFA, Boston Collection; 59.178).
The Altamura Painter, Calyx krater with scenes of the Sack of Troy, ca. 470 – 460 BCE.
(MFA, Boston Collection; 59.178).

On Sunday afternoon, singers from Boston Lyric Opera joined curator Christine Kondoleon in the Remis Auditorium at MFA, Boston for an hour-long promotional of both the museum’s new Greek antiquities galleries and the talents of Boston Lyric Opera. Part of the Signature Series, this well-received infotainment combined aspects musical and visual with moments of joy and miscues.

In many ways I am not the intended audience for this happening, having researched, taught, and published on some of the intersections between Classics and opera—a rich and long history. So I kept wanting more depth, more context, in both the talk and the performance. But who is the intended audience?

Partly this event was a showcasing of the newly reinstalled ancient Greek art galleries at the MFA, which mark a move away from the chronological display created by Cornelius Vermeule to three rooms of thematic display; the three groupings of the new arrangement—myth, theater, and symposium—were featured throughout. As we saw various objects from this collection on screen, Kondoleon narrated the illustration’s connections to the world of opera.

Partly this event is a promotion for Boston Lyric Opera; its singers perhaps more than its upcoming season (since we did not hear arias from works planned between now and next June). Based on my own knowledge of this subject, and familiarity with scholars working on these intersections, I wonder why the MFA did not reach out across the Charles River and invite Carolyn Abbate from Harvard’s Music Department to talk about classics and opera. Her book, In Search of Opera, opens with a gorgeously written consideration of early opera and the myths of Orpheus. Having Kondoleon present the museum’s objects and Abbate the connections between antiquity and music would have made for a more enlightening lecture for those interested in antiquities and those interested in music.

The hour-long presentation alternated between talk and song. Kondoleon’s descriptions of the images resembled an art history lecture. The singers took the stage from the front row of the auditorium (the stage being only a step higher than the audience floor). Given this format, I wish all involved had worked out the technical details and stage business beforehand: check the cues between speaker and performers; reduce the pauses between shifts from lecture to performance by have the singers take the stage sooner; turn off the podium microphone during the singing (this was especially noticeable when one singer approached the podium and mugged with Kondoleon while performing); allow time for applause or make transitions seamless so the audience knows to clap at the end of the spectacle.

With Brett Hodgdon at the piano, we heard Michelle Trainor (soprano), Brad Raymond (tenor), and David Cushing (bass-baritone) in arias ranging from Gluck to Tippett. Cushing, Hodgdon, and Trainor are all BLO Emerging Artist Alumni, while Raymond is a current BLO Emerging Artist; thus another showcase. Given the musical talent, I am puzzled why so many arias were sung in English translation, and still regret that the lyrics were neither printed in the program nor projected; even our native tongue is not always easy to follow. Understanding the sung texts would have increased my appreciation of the music and the singer’s interpretations. Trainor began with Cassandra’s aria, “No, no I cannot bear” from Berlioz, Les Troyens but really came into her own with Glück’s “Che faro” from Orfeo ed Euridice and, later, “Allein…Allein” from Strauss’ Elektra. She seemed more comfortable in her lower and middle registers and has a darkness of tone that make her sound, to my ears, more a mezzo-soprano. Cushing has a powerful voice and commanding presence which worked perfectly for Polyphemus’ aria “O ruddier than the cherry” from Handel’s Acis and Galatea. He partnered with Raymond in the Pedrillo/Osmin duet from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, “Long live Bacchus” and in Tippett’s “They may never take Troy” (singing the roles of Patroclus and Achilles, respectively) from King Priam; I found the pairing more effectively balanced in the Mozart excerpt. As for Raymond, he excelled in comic timing and presentation in Offenbach’s “On Mount Ida” from La belle Hélène and in Dema’s aria, “This, he’ll regret” from Cavalli’s L’Egisto. He rendered Iopas’ “O blonde Ceres” from Berlioz’s Les Troyens beautifully, and sensitively; only one high note seemingly out of his range (at least on this afternoon) marred this number.

I appreciated the opportunity to hear these three singers. Even if they will only be BLO choristers next season, it was nice to hear them. I also appreciated the remarks about the antiquities held by the MFA. Although we were not led on a walk through the new galleries (I have done that a few times already), we certainly felt invited to do just that. The displays highlight some of the remarkable pots in this collection and I am pleased to see so many old friends much better displayed than previously. Overall, though, I found the event left me wanting more—more context for the arias (Cavalli’s L’Egisto could have been explained in more detail, since this is not so widely known)—more connections between art and music—more details about the enmeshed histories of opera and Classics.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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