At age 87, with a lengthy catalogue of operas, choruses, song cycles and other vocal music (very little purely instrumental), and with a Pulitzer under his belt, Dominick Argento is certainly one of America’s pre-eminent composers; yet to judge by the scant play he gets locally, one might conclude that Boston presenters are rather stand-offish about him. We could count only five performances here (counting one by Monadnock Music, about which more later) since 2010 that got reviews on this site, most of which were isolated songs or chorus pieces. That made the double-bill produced by Gil Rose’s Odyssey Opera this past weekend of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Day and A Water Bird Talk, at Suffolk University’s delightfull jewel box in the shell of the Modern Theater, all the more enticing.
In addition to “standard” operas, Argento has become a master at a hybrid form known as a monodrama, a staged work for vocal soloist and instruments. Both the works on the Odyssey program fit this description (in Miss Havisham there are two silent parts at the very end, for the chambermaid and Miss H’s adopted daughter Estella; their presence in this work owes something to its history, which we will explain presently). Both date from the 1970s, and show Argento at full maturity employing his full panoply of eclectic devices, building musical and psychological complexity with modernist inflections on a basically tonal foundation, very much like his fellow “Minnesota Moderns” Libby Larsen (a former student of Argento) and the late Stephen Paulus.
Miss Havisham, which was the later work, from 1979 has a complicated history: while the monodrama was conceived first, as composed it derives from the full opera written that year, Miss Havisham’s Fire, which was devised as a star vehicle for Beverly Sills (who in the event never got to sing it for reasons of ill health). It is based on a study of the character Aurelia Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and was composed to a libretto by Argento’s frequent collaborator John Olon-Scrymgeour (1929-2004). The full opera was a catastrophic failure, the only real bomb in Argento’s career, though the faults found by the critics were mostly laid at Scrymgeour’s doorstep (the larger work fared much better in its 2001 revised version). To salvage something from the wreckage, Argento reclaimed the monodrama, which as the epilogue to the opera was and remains an extended mad scene in the great 19th century tradition, in which Aurelia, now an old and decrepit woman, relived the event that shattered her, when her fiancé jilted her on her wedding day. She thereafter lived in her darkened house dressed in her wedding gown and only one shoe (her state of dress at the moment she received the groom’s note calling it off). Argento’s music is a closely worked and microscopically precise evolution from repressed to overt insanity, and then, as if in obeisance to musical structure, back again, so that when the other characters enter it is possible for Miss Havisham to interact with them (after a fashion).
Needless to say, a work like this is a tour de force for the singer, when it’s all done properly. For this production, Rose brought in soprano Heather Buck, who is possessed of a wonderful crystalline voice and a fine sense of stage presence, with obviously well-developed acting chops. To her great credit she did not let herself go over the top (Rose served as stage as well as music director, so presumably he gets some of the credit as well). Buck is no stranger to singing Argento; in fact, she appeared under Rose’s direction in the early three-character opera The Boor with Monadnock Music in 2012. We loved her singing here, and we loved Argento’s ingenious orchestration, although in the confines of the Modern Theater, it necessitated putting the harp, contrabass and keyboards (notably the wonderful Mustel harmonium, played by Kevin Galié) in the loges to the side of the stage rather than in the pit. We’d have more individualized things to say about the excellent musical performances, but with the lights down to zero it was impossible to take notes.
The stage setting was perforce restrained, though effective to suggest the clutter of a Victorian drawing room. The screen, needed for Water Bird, was effectively used to rear-project images, most typically a wintry latticework of branches, but also silhouettes and a “Twilight-Zone”-ish montage of clockworks. Amanda Mujica’s costume designs were excellent, chiefly involving the tattered state of Miss H’s gown. What jarred, however, was Miss H’s makeup—while she is not necessarily a very old woman (Dickens had her in her 50s, though most screen representations have her older), the personage who appeared on stage, while wearing a white wig and Dresden Dolls face paint, did not disguise what Buck is, a beautiful young woman. Our other objection, and our most significant one, was that Rose thought it sufficient that the work was sung in English, without supertitles. While in the more parlando sections this wasn’t a problem, Buck’s elocution was not precise enough to overcome the stresses the often melismatic writing placed on audience comprehension. In a psychodrama like this, that is a serious defect.
The second half of the program, by contrast, was an unqualified success. Argento’s own libretto for A Water Bird Talk was loosely adapted (including changing the subject matter) from Chekhov’s play On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco. In it, a 19th-century American lecturer gives an illustrated talk ostensibly about waterfowl, but continually veers off-piste to describe how his life has been made miserable by his virago of a wife and his seven mocking daughters. His misery is emphasized through reference to the domestic lives of the birds he is discussing, whose images are projected on the screen as if from a “magic lantern” typical of the era, using (as per Argento’s directions) images from J. J. Audubon’s The Birds of North America. While as psychologically astute here as in Miss Havisham, Argento’s music contains delights even separate from the “action” it portrays. For one thing, the piece is structured as a theme and variations, the theme introduced by the viola in the opening scene while the Lecturer natters on. The variations address the changing bird images (and the increasingly feverish and pathetic confessionals the Lecturer appends). While the score identifies six variations and a coda, each variation is either rather loosely constructed or consists of multiple variations. Repeated hearings would be necessary to give a more confident analysis, but luckily this is music that invites them. At one point, the Lecturer inserts a slide upside down, and, if we heard it right, Argento responds musically with an inversion of the theme—it’s that kind of clever.
Aaron Engebreth, the baritone who sang the Lecturer, is familiar to Boston audiences from many operatic and concert performances, and as co-director of the Florestan Project. He performed this role at the Monadnock concert adverted to above, Toni Norton’s review of which, containing further “plot” details, is here. From where we sat, he absolutely has this part nailed. His sometimes precipitous lurches between slapstick, farce and pathos were never forced and never overtly manipulative, and his mannerisms, notably when not singing, displayed a strong sense of character. And while the vocal writing was perhaps not as demanding as what Argento set for Sills in Miss Havisham, apart from one run that started with falsetto and descended to low basso, we could follow just about every word.
As with Miss Havisham, the sets, lighting and costuming were restrained but effective (it might result from differences in weather, but Engebreth’s costume for this performance was much better attuned to the mise-en-scène than what he wore for the Monadnock performance), though for a man married 33 years and hard put by, there could have been a bit more gray in Engebreth’s hair; the lighting and projections were well calibrated, and we need to commend pianist Linda Osborn for coordinating well with Engebreth’s mock-playing in one scene. Rose’s direction of Argento’s evocative and colorful orchestration was superb, as was the band’s playing.