The third of four waves of Odyssey Opera’s “British Invasion” rolled into the Boston University Theater Saturday—five monodramas entitled “Kings, Queens, Saints & Sinners.” Under the assured artistic direction of Gil Rose and underwritten by Randolph J. Fuller, Odyssey is making a determined bid to explode the annoyingly persistent canard that England produced no operas worthy of the name between those of Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten. (Presumably Handel was disqualified from consideration due to his German birth.) Having commenced two weeks ago with Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love, and continued the next weekend with Sullivan’s The Zoo and Walton’s The Bear, this Anglophilic odyssey will conclude June 18-20 with Powder Her Face by Thomas Adès. This weekend’s offering differed from the others in that each work had a different, solitary singer, and the familiarity of the works, and of their composers, varied.
Having converted to Roman Catholicism in his 20s, Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) evinced a marked sympathy with the words of the Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila, Op. 27. These poems, set in English translations of Arthur Symons, evoke both fervent religious contemplation and working life in 16th-century Spain. Berkeley accompanies the solo mezzo soprano (Stephanie Kacoyanis) with a string ensemble, ingeniously varying the texture from spare to rich to reflect text or vocal tessitura. The first poem is Teresa’s plea to God to dwell in her, a restless, even pained request. The second, an aubade (or alborada to Teresa), is a pastoral scene at dawn evoking shepherds with a continual drone fifth. The fourth seems an extension of the shepherd theme but soon develops into an internal debate as Teresa struggles to reconcile the omnipotence of God with the crucifixion. The emotional high point of the set, though, comes in the third song in which, to sustained, intense music, Teresa repeatedly beseeches Jesus to appear to her, whereafter she will be content to see death. Kacoyanis was most affecting here, managing to convey both nobility and self-abasement and using her rich low register to advantage. The particularly beautiful playing Rose obtained from the strings in this song’s postlude enhanced the atmosphere. I might have wished sometimes for more consistently clear text enunciation, but overall, this was a well-detailed, moving performance.
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) had an enviably varied résumé: trained as a classical composer at the Royal Academy of Music and studying with Pierre Boulez, he duly produced symphonies, choral and keyboard works, operas, etc., but also jazz songs (he was a jazz pianist himself) and some 50 film and television scores (that for Murder on the Orient Express won the 1974 BAFTA). His Ophelia (1987) is a setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Ophélie in the original, for counter tenor (Martin Near) with strings, harp and Ondes Martenot. The latter is generally regarded as the first electronic instrument, invented in 1928 and used a good deal by Olivier Messiaen in many of his works; it is also a keyboard cousin to the theremin, a characteristic wavering voice of all too many 1930s horror movies right up through the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Rimbaud’s poetic description (written when he was 16!) of the demented maiden of Hamlet floating to her death in a river ravishingly and heartbreakingly likens her to a great lily on the water. (The one unfortunate error in Near’s otherwise fine French: “lys” was missing its final “s” so “lily” became “bed”.) Bennett contributed music of unearthly fascination, giving the strings some plush textures—perhaps evoking Ophelia’s “great veils” that keep her afloat for a time—poignantly punctuated by the harp. The uncommon purity and evenness of Near’s instrument ideally suited his portrait of the forlorn girl. He achieved the climactic lament “Heaven! Love! Freedom! What a dream, o poor crazed girl!” with intensity more than raw power. Regrettably, the subsequent cadenza for Ondes Martenot and harp exposed the inadequacy of the Kurzweil electronic keyboard as a substitute. The concluding stanza, however, a final address to Ophelia’s wraith bewitched, as Near’s sound gradually dissolved into the strings’.
In setting Jean Racine’s Phèdre (translated to English by Robert Lowell), Benjamin Britten saw this adaptation’s superiority, for theatrical purposes, to the original traditions—assuming a singer of uncommon talent (it was intended as a vehicle for Dame Janet Baker). Phaedra, written near the end of the composer’s life and modeled on cantatas of Handel and Purcell, includes a continuo unit of harpsichord and cello with string ensemble and percussion. The story centers on Phaedra, wife of King Theseus, who conceives a mad passion—illicit and unrequited—for her stepson Hippolytus, which drives her to poison herself. In the original myth she leaves behind a suicide note falsely accusing Hippolytus of seducing her and consequently causing his death, but Racine allows the queen to redeem herself before dying: after taking a slow-acting poison, she absolves Hippolytus to Theseus. Mezzo soprano Erica Brookhyser proved an exceptionally able singing actress, navigating adeptly among several inner monologues, an address to Hippolytus, and another to Theseus. The instrumentalists, under Rose’s skillful guidance, brought Britten’s descriptive orchestration to life. Though the frenzied address to Hippolytus was the peak of excitement, the most moving passage for me was Phaedra’s final speech to the king. In parallel to her contradictory description of the poison’s action, “chills already dart along my boiling veins and squeeze my heart,” Brookhyser made us see her turmoil as she confessed, yet never lost her nobility.
Though every piece on this program is of considerable difficulty, King Harald’s Saga, by Judith Weir (b. 1954), is unique in putting the spotlight literally and figuratively on the solo soprano (Elizabeth Keusch), dispensing with accompaniment altogether, as well as requiring her to portray a host of characters: the Norwegian King Harald, his two wives, his dead brother Olaf, the English traitor Earl Tostig, the whole Norwegian army, a messenger, a soldier, and an Icelandic sage (the text is Weir’s adaptation, in English, of the 13th-century Icelandic saga Heimskringla). The Saga’s three acts comprise the tale of Harald’s ill-advised invasion of England in the pivotal year of 1066, the army’s rout and Harald’s bloody demise after being the most merciless and feared warrior from Russia to Palestine (so he claimed), and the sage’s recounting of the awful cost to Norway and his weariness of human stupidity. The first act gave one uneasy feelings about the king from the start: Keusch made a memorably testosterone-poisoned king who “believes his own publicity”, then portrayed a similarly expansion-minded crowd of followers giving a fanfare full of Sitwell-esque wordplay to Harald’s chief fawner, Tostig: “Hail Tostig, tell all Tostig, tell us your tale tall Tostig. Treat us to the truth, tempt us with a truthless trick, trick us in a trance tall terse Tostig. Tell us all, tell us all, talk, all hail, tell tale, tell tale telling Tostig.” Seemingly exasperated by this blather, Tostig responds with seven one-word sentences: “Hail. Take. Kill. Win. Sail. Fight. Go.” Keusch was dazzling here, both dramatically and musically, making Harald hard as nails, the crowd empty-headed but very nimble-tongued, and Tostig authoritative (a long, brilliant melisma on “Go” ) if contemptible. She was also resourceful in delineating different characters with her notably expressive face and with posture, stance, gait, gesture and vocal tone. There is a perhaps inevitable falling off of tension after the graphically described battle, but Keusch still managed to make the sage’s summing up interesting, even getting a slight titter at the end: “Why did Harald bother? . . . I could have told him it would end like this.” Perhaps being her own librettist was not Weir’s best idea, but a performer of Keusch’s caliber goes far to ameliorate weak spots.
The evening concluded with a third mad protagonist (a staple of opera, to be sure). The Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) of Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934) examine the particular dementia of King George III. A confirmed advocate of the avant garde, Davies leaves behind the stylized operatic mad scene and attempts to represent the real thing, requiring extended techniques of singer and instruments alike. The intrepid baritone Thomas Meglioranza gave us all manner of vocal utterances over something like four octaves from basso profundo growls to squeaks in birdsong range. Setting the tone at the outset, the small ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion gave a crashing tone cluster soon followed by the entrance of George in pajamas. This very extended, unflinching scan of a fractured mind was difficult in every way to listen to and to play, but the unremitting commitment of the performers seemed to keep the audience with them all the way. There were perhaps a few instances when the king seemed momentarily more lucid or even close to levity (“I hate a white lie! If you tell me a lie, let it be a black lie!”), but they were fleeting. Music George III would have known was quoted in distorted fashion–most interestingly, a burlesque version of the opening of Handel’s “Comfort ye” Another performance convention was violated when the protagonist interacted with instrumentalists. One song is addressed to an imaginary lady-in-waiting, in this case, the flutist, and the biggest shock came when he took the violinist’s instrument from her, stroked it for a time, and then smashed it (she had unobtrusively switched violins shortly before). In the final song, the baritone seemed to become another character to speak George’s obituary without omitting details of the cruel treatment mental patients of the time underwent; at the end, he reverted, marching slowly off the stage followed by a funereal bass drum, intoning the word “howling” repeatedly into the distance. Meglioranza’s enormous range of vocal sounds impressed mightily, and all the performers were unafraid to make ugly sounds and facial expressions in the interest of unvarnished authenticity. While I might not go out of my way to hear this work again, I am gratified to have experienced it from the gifted performers of Odyssey Opera.