John Lyman Faxon’s Richardsonian First Baptist Church of Newton Centre, an astonishing miniature of Trinity Church Copley Square, provided a compelling setting for a musical production last night. This was not a medieval chancel drama, nor church parable, nor opera, exactly. No Christian soldiers marched as to war. But there were Turkish soldiers, Cossacks, diverse singers, players, dancers, and moments of great delight in the Commonwealth Lyric Theater staging of Cossack Beyond the Danube by Semyon Hulak-Artemovsky.
The plot wisely stood clear of interfering with the fun. In short, a lovelorn girl laments, a drunken husband quails before a shrill but loving wife, a sultan in disguise discovers that the captive people are unhappy, lovelorn girl is kidnapped, La clemenza di Sultan ensues, the people rejoice.
The composer’s pastiche in styles of Verdi (with whom he shares a birthday) and Donizetti, with a bit of Mozart thrown in as a joke, is not exactly a through-composed opera. Though it comprises some fine arias, duets, choruses and ensembles, long swaths are entirely sec. Conventional comic dialog in Ukrainian of henpecked husbands and sultans in disguise sometimes went on too long for nonnative speakers un-steeped in the tradition. Yet the ending, with a call and answer chorus of Ukrainian aspiration for homeland, reached even this skeptic of nationalism.
My notes recall several other highpoints, which I mention without much hope that the descriptions will awake remembrances among readers. “Wow, that was quite a night” (Ой, щось дуже загулявся), Karas’s drunken ode, is perhaps the most frequently excerpted piece in the show. Odarka’s pungent retort, “My dove has dragged himself home,” gave as good as she got in the duet (Вiдкiля це ти узявся). An a cappella chorus “Our swords are rusty, but we have no fear of the Turks” (Нашi шаблi заржавiли… серце козацькеє не боїться туркiв), revealed an ensemble in possession of idiom. Oksana’s “Angel of the Night” (Ангел ночi) took poignant wing over some of the most developed orchestration of the evening. It approached grand opera and ended on a nicely floated high B. Her duet with Anriy, “A Black Cloud from the Woods” (Чорна хмара з-за дiброви), rose to verismo passion. And Odarka had her most musical moment when she lamented in “Oh, My mother told me.” (Ой, казала ж менi мати). And one quartet “Our unhappy lot” (Нещаслива наша доля) (which becomes a quintet) reminds a bit of “Bella Figlia Dell’Amore” from Rigoletto.
The small orchestra (3,3,3,2,1 with four winds and two brass) under the redoubtable Lidiya Yankovskaya provided a clean account of the score with idiomatic hesitations and folk wit. Would we have enjoyed more color from larger forces and a bit more exuberance? You bet. I particularly missed the harp in the concluding national hymn.
The economical staging seemed like a community endeavor. Alexander Prokhorov’s blocking was basic. The old pros had great moments, but the large chorus and minor players did not always seem to know what to do, exactly. Anastasia Grigoriyeva’s intensely colored and layered costumes for the 75 or so onstage were exuberant in the extreme. Consisting of wicker screens and columns from Crate and Barrel as stage furniture, the setting was immeasurably enhanced by the sumptuous Byzantine/Romanesque millwork and gilded ornament supplied so thoughtfully by Faxon. The credited lighting designer was unable to provide his art, as the church had inadequate power, so there was nothing to signify change of scene from peasant house or sultanic divan to sylvan rendezvous or town square.
What was great about the show was the talent onstage: the combined Yevshan Ukrainian Vocal Ensemble under Alexander Kuzma and Commonwealth Lyric Theater Ensemble, Olga France chorusmaster, made a huge visual and sonic impact. Four women from the Syzokryli Dancers wrapped themselves around Technicolor scarves, while two of the company’s men defied gravity. The nearly soldout crowd was much impressed.
The opera began in earnest as Oksana, Newton’s own Olga Lisovskaya, the company’s executive director brightly intoned, “Oh bright moon…” in a soprano which was clear and perfectly formed. Even in her exotic costume she made a credible romantic lead. Her paramour, the Andriy of Adam Klein, had little to do until the last act, but what he did was extraordinary. With clarion tenor and absolute engagement, he stopped the show with an ardent “Lord of Heaven and Earth”, which the chorus answered with a fine wall of sound in their aspiration for the day of return to the Ukrainian homeland. The most commanding figure onstage was the bass Dmytro Pavlyuk. His star turn as Karas was compleat. In powerful tones that could fill any opera house, he invoked both the heroic and the comic qualities of his role. Galina Ivannikova interpreted his stage wife Odarka in a plummy mezzo with soaring tones that carried beautifully. It’s too bad she was also required to be a harridan, but her voice perfectly matched her outgoing personality. The lesser roles were covered capably.
The audience seemed quite taken with the cameo interpolation of Glinka’s “Ne shchebechy, solovejko” prayer by boy alto Clark Rubinshtein, although I found his earlier acting as an assistant to the Sultan rather wooden. His bowing and scraping looked more to be dovvening. The relentless falsetto of Eugene Vernikovskiy as the eunuch Slikh-Aga was probably inevitable for the part. Neither the sultan nor his vizier seemed to be in most resonant of voice.
Yet I heard and saw enough to relish a more fully realized take on this staple of the Ukrainian stage and to look forward to what Commonwealth Lyric Theater has in store next. The show continues tonight in Newton before moving onto Hartford on the 17th and Albany on the 22nd. Both venues are apparently “real theaters,” which will permit painting with light.