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Rosy Opera Odyssey to England


Falstaff by Eduard von Grützner
Falstaff by Eduard von Grützne

The ever-enterprising Odyssey Opera ends its second season as it did its first, with a festival devoted to operas drawn from a national group, with works writ large and small. A major score, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love, comes to Boston and apparently the New World for its first professional production. A video preview is here.

After two full seasons, the unusual and stimulating pattern of the company’s approach becomes clearer: Open the season early in the fall with a concert performance of an important opera not previously heard in Boston (Rienzi in 2013, Die tote Stadt in 2014) and unlikely, owing to size, complexity, and cost, to be given a staged performance here; occasional performances of carefully selected smaller operas, often by American composers, in various venues during the winter season; then, in late May and June, a closing festival of operas—last year Italian, this year English.

All of this takes place under the extremely long-reaching baton of the extraordinary Gil Rose, who in the past 20 years since his arrival in Boston, has contributed with boundless imagination to the city’s musical life, at first through his founding of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which produces at least four concerts a year of the widest possible range of modern music (taking that adjective in its broadest sense to include both brand new works and worthy compositions somewhat older but all-too-often overlooked or underperformed). In programming these concerts, he has demonstrated an openness and catholicity of taste that has benefited the city’s musicians, audiences, and the composers represented. This influence has reached far beyond Boston through the orchestra’s ongoing recording activities. Since founding its own label, BMOP/sound, the organization has put out over 40 CDs; the total reaches nearly 60 if earlier recordings issued by other labels are included.

Rose became the music director of the late, lamented Opera Boston in 2003, and during the years that it functioned (closing suddenly midseason at the end of 2011 owing to an insurmountable budget gap), the company produced both operas by standard composers (though often works rarely heard in Boston) and more daring choices such as Hindemith’s Cardillac and Shostakovich’s The Nose, as well as a world premiere of Zhou Long’s Madam White Snake.

In 2003, early on in his directorship of Opera Boston, Gil Rose conducted a festival of contemporary operas (not unlike the one about to take place as Odyssey Opera) featuring works by Elena Ruehr, Daniel Pinkham, and Thomas Adès. These may have suggested the plan and format of Odyssey Opera’s manner of ending the season—something special as a kind of musical dessert for Boston music lovers once the Boston Symphony and other organizations (Boston Ballet, community orchestras, chamber music groups, new music ensembles) have closed down for the summer.

“The British Invasion,” as this year’s festival has been titled, consists of a large opera that Gil Rose says he has wanted to perform for years, and is filled out with a new production of an Adès opera originally performed in 2003, which, Rose says, many people regretted missing at the time and hoped to see again. The schedule is filled out with an evening of witty one-acts by Walton and Sullivan, and an evening of dramatic monologues by five varied and fascinating composers. All in all, the festival offers English operas covering a chronological range from 1875 to the last decade.

The Odyssey Opera festival for 2015 begins with three staged performances of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Falstaff opera Sir John in Love, composed between 1924 and 1928. The title phrase supposedly comes from the request of Queen Elizabeth I to the poet, after enjoying the antics of Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, to write something that “would show Sir John in love.” The result was The Merry Wives of Windsor, which serves as a much closer basis for RVW’s opera than it did for Verdi’s Falstaff or Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor.

Vaughan Williams, who prepared the libretto largely by himself, retained some of the complexities of the original comedy that Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito pared away. The most significant difference is the retention of multiple suitors for Ford’s daughter Anne (Verdi’s version greatly simplifies that element). So Sir John in Love includes a very large cast, making it rather expensive to produce, but it also offers a number of opportunities for farcical activities. The composer issued the modest hope “that even Verdi’s masterpiece may not exhaust all the possibilities of Shakespeare’s genius.” He filled with score with melodies drawn from his years of study of English folk music. One of his most famous pieces, the Fantasia on “Greensleeves,” was extracted from the opera as a concert piece. While Boito expanded the character of Falstaff by drawing elements from the character’s speeches in the Henry IV plays, Vaughan Williams seeks out Shakespeare’s own lyrics from elsewhere (“Sigh no more ladies” from Much Ado About Nothing and “When daisies pied” from Love’s Labour’s Lost) for the merry wives, and some song lyrics from Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton for the young lovers. The result is a quick-moving opera filled with lots of beautiful music and effective dramatic presentation, one that should be welcomed with delight in Boston.

Sir John in Love is conducted by Gil Rose, with stage direction by Joshua Major, choreography by Melinda Sullivan, scenic design by Stephen Dobay, and costume design by Katharine Stebbins. It will be performed three times at the Boston University Theater: Sunday, May 17, at 3pm; Wednesday, May 20, at 7:30pm; and Saturday, May 23, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available online here or by phone at 617-933-8600.

Sandwiched around the final performance of Sir John in Love come two performances of a pair of witty one-act operas by two strikingly different composers, Arthur Sullivan and William Walton. Walton’s The Bear, an “extravaganza in one act” based on a short story by Chekhov, calls for just two characters—Popova, an ultra-virtuous young widow, and her late husband’s creditor Smirnov. Though in his later years Walton was best known for writing Shakespearean film score for Olivier, three great concertos (one each for violin, viola, and cello), and two noble marches for royal coronations, his witty approach to music is obvious to those familiar with his early jape Façade, music linked to a speaker’s recitation of poems by Edith Sitwell. One review at the time of its premiere labeled it “Drivel that they paid to hear,” but its brilliance and humor eventually made it very popular. The same sense of humor (without the references to popular dances of the 1920s) runs through The Bear.

It is paired with a one-act work by a composer well known for writing above all witty music in theatrical settings, Arthur Sullivan. But The Zoo is not a collaboration with W.S. Gilbert. He composed it just a few months after Trial by Jury, his first great success with Gilbert, but before they established a real partnership, which did not happen for two more years. The Zoo is, of course, a story of love sought and eventually won by two pairs of lovers who meet in the London Zoo. The chorus consists of the British Public (or B.P., as they refer to themselves). The librettist, B.C. Stephenson, may lack W.S. Gilbert’s air of topsy-turveydom and his utterly brilliant versification, but the piece is delightful fun nonetheless, and a nice opportunity to hear some unknown Sullivan songs. (One of these, I was able to discover while preparing a critical edition of Trial by Jury, had actually been written for the Usher in that show, then cut because it contributed little and slowed down the action. But Sullivan evidently liked it enough to give to Stephenson for new lyrics.)

The two one-acts, The Zoo and The Bear will be performed at the BU Theater on Friday, May 22, at 7:30pm, and Sunday, May 24, at 3 pm. Stage director for both operas is Lynn Torgove. James Blachly conducts The Zoo and Gil Rose The Bear.

May 30 brings a unique event, performed just once at the BU Theater at 7:30pm: five composers, and five solo singers who are rising figures in the operatic world, each appearing in a monodrama that presents a dramatic situation for them. Entitled “Kings, Queens, Saints, and Sinners: Five Monodramas,” the evening offers striking variety even though the works were composed within the span of a few decades in the late 20th and early 21st century. Two of them—by Britten and Max Davies—have become reasonably well known; the other three are more likely to be striking discoveries for most listeners.

Benjamin Britten composed Phaedra for Janet Baker in 1975 (it was his last completed vocal work). The text comes from Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre, one of the great tragic heroines, whether in classical antiquity or French classical drama or Britten’s version, which derives from the tradition of the Baroque cantata (essentially an operatic scene in concert form). Erica Brookhyser performs it here.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s Ophelia sets a youthful text by Rimbaud that he liked and held onto for possible future use. He actually wrote the score in 1987 when Michael Chance asked him for a work for voice (countertenor) and ondes martenot. Bennett added a harp and a small string ensemble. Bennett (1932-2012) was a prolific composer of wide musical tastes who wrote over 200 concert works as well as music for about 50 films (among which noteworthy scores included those for Far from the Madding Crowd, Nicholas and Alexandra, Murder on the Orient Express, Enchanted April, and Four Weddings and a Funeral). He performed and composed for and with jazz musicians. Countertenor Martin Near will essay the part.

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) was, among other things, a teacher of Richard Rodney Bennett at the Royal Academy of Music. He studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger in 1927 and later with Ravel, at the same time getting acquainted with Stravinsky and the composers of “The Six.” He retained a French color to his music, despite later developments of his style. Later he became a frequent associate of the young Benjamin Britten. In 1947 he composed Four Poems of St Theresa of Ávila for contralto in translations by Arthur Symons. Stephanie Kacoyannis performs it in Boston.

Judith Weir (b.1954) is the current Master of the Queen’s Music (the first woman to hold the position). She studied with John Tavener and Robin Holloway. In 1975 she studied with Gunther Schuller as a composition fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. She is best known for her chamber operas, including King Harald’s Saga, which—astonishingly, perhaps—calls for no orchestral accompaniment at all, but just a single soprano (Elizabeth Keusch here) performing eight roles.

Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934) was formerly Master of the Queen’s Music. He has been known for wide-ranging musical approaches, and an extensive list of symphonies, concertos, string quartets plus theatrical works, both for professionals and for young people. Eight Songs for a Mad King is probably the first piece that made him exceptionally well known in the United States (though he had lived and worked here before that time) through a remarkable recording issued by Nonesuch. The baritone soloist (Thomas Miglioranza in this performance) goes through various stages of mental clarity and madness in a striking and dramatic work.

The final opera to be part of the “British Invasion,” Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, is the one that has been heard in Boston before under Gil Rose’s direction, but that was a dozen years ago, and many people who missed it (and many who saw it) hoped to see it again. Moreover the composer has gone on to even greater renown than he had already achieved. His later opera, The Tempest, has been performed very widely, including at the Metropolitan Opera, and broadcast in HD around the world.

Powder Her Face calls for just four singers, three of whom play a series of kaleidoscopically changing roles, all satellites circling around the Duchess whose story the opera tells.

The Duchess was a real person. Though her name is never mentioned in the libretto, the account of her flourishing lifestyle and scandalous fall is reasonably historical, though composer and librettist are far more concerned to create a vivid theatrical work than to make an operatic biopic. When the Almeida Festival commissioned a ninety-minute chamber opera, he chose a real-life protagonist who had achieved almost mythical status for her beauty and intelligence, and later notoriety for sexual excess. This was Margaret Whigham (1912-1993). In her first marriage she became Margaret Sweeny, and as such was immortalized by Cole Porter in one of the many verses to his song “You’re the Top”:

You’re the top; you’re an Arrow collar,
You’re the top; you’re a Coolidge dollar,
You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You’re Mussolini, you’re Mrs. Sweeny, you’re Camembert,.

Gil Rose (BMOP file photo)
Gil Rose (BMOP file photo)

This one line highlighted her fame and the brilliant circles in which Margaret Sweeny moved. Her second marriage, in 1947, was to Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, which made her Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, a title she kept even after the sensational divorce case that made her as notorious as she had been noteworthy.

The opera’s principal character is an unnamed “Duchess” who has clearly been a fascinating, charming, and beautiful woman, though lacking in real self-esteem, and ultimately a tragic figure. Adès and his librettist Philip Hensher shaped the opera from the viewpoint of 1990 (that is, during the last years of the historical character) with the central scenes functioning as flashbacks. The opera offers recollections of Berg’s Lulu and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, but these are fleeting moments of homage to the 20th century operatic tradition. Adès’s music is unquestionably modern, yet filled with sly references to popular styles of the opera’s time period, music whose rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic gestures we all know because so much of it remains popular today. Its return to Boston is very welcome.

Performances of Powder Her Face take place at the Boston Conservatory Theater on Thursday through Saturday, June 18 to 20, all at 7:30pm.

A Festival Pass is available for all four performances offering a substantial discount over the price of single tickets. Further information is available here.

My wide-ranging conversation with Gil Rose elicited fascinating hints of future plans for Odyssey Opera, including the mention of many works he is eager to perform. But the most specific hint he would give about the immediate future is that the coming season’s plan would be printed on the back of the program for the British Invasion Festival, which clearly offers much of interest immediately at hand.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.     

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