Over its three years, Gil Rose’s Odyssey Opera has brought Boston a series of operas rarely if ever heard or seen here before, including three concert performances of large, expensive, important works that no local company, in the present condition of our musical life, can afford to produce: Wagner’s Rienzi, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, and Massenet’s Le Cid. These appeared in early fall, when other musical organizations are warming up for the season. Then in late May and June, after most groups have closed shop for the summer, Odyssey has offered a mini-festival of staged works—Italian the first year, British the second. During that period the earliest opera performed was Verdi’s comedy Un giorno di regno (1840; often translated as King for a Day).
For the conclusion of its third season, Opera Odyssey looks nearly a century further back to two lesser-known works: Gluck’s Ezio and Mozart’s Lucio Silla. Since both stories take place in ancient Rome (Mozart’s during the first century BCE, Gluck’s during the fifth century CE), the mini-festival (June 3-12) has been dubbed “When in Rome.” Ezio will run at the Boston University Theater on June 3 (7:30pm) and June 5 (3pm); Lucio Silla will follow on June 8 and 10 (7:30pm) and June 12 (3pm). Both shows include high production value sets and costumes. Joshua Major will stage Ezio, while by Isabel Milenski helms Lucio Silla.
Both operas date from the third quarter of the 18th century, a time of considerable ferment in the genre, as many composers, and especially Gluck and Mozart, were experimenting with new approaches to the opera seria tradition, approaches that eventually transmuted it into the bel canto opera of the early 19th century.
In Opera seria, the standard term for the many thousands of serious operas composed in the Baroque era, plots derived from classical history or from such poetic epics as Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. They called for small casts of soloists and sometimes (rarely) a modest-sized chorus. The poets who wrote the librettos (regarded as the most important Italian literary figures of the time) arranged their plots in such a way as to call for extraordinary variety of emotional responses from the characters.
Each scene was set up so that the dialogue (sung with the rapid, light form of expression called recitative) forwarded the plot and always arrived at a point where one of the characters had to respond emotionally to the dramatic situation—in joy, rage, romantic passion, profound sorrow, whatever. The response customarily came in an aria, almost always composed in what is known as da capo form: the singer began with a musical idea that projected the emotional stance. When this ended, he or she moved to a new section, usually in a different key and sometimes in an entirely different meter or tempo, to consider a related aspect of the situation. At the close of this B section, the composer’s score gave the notation D.C. or Da capo, “from the head,” at which point the first section would be sung again.
When Baroque operas of this genre started returning to the stage in the first half of the 20th century (originally as part of a Handel revival), critics lamented that this da capo structure was monotonous and undramatic. But that view changed considerably when modern singers learned to do what their 18th-century forebears had done: use the return to the opening part of the aria to show off their vocal skills with the most elaborate and decorative ornamentation. Not only does this offer delight to audiences that come to hear great singing, but also, in the hands of gifted artists, the ornaments add valuable expressive details.
The poets who wrote the librettos—especially the most famous, Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782)—aimed to create a plot that would unfold with dramatic developments motivating strikingly different arias from one scene to the next. He did this so well that composer after composer chose to set his texts even though it might have been set many times already. Ezio, for example, was set to music more than three dozen times between 1728 and 1827! Gluck himself first wrote an Ezio in 1750 for Prague, then reworked it for a production in Vienna in 1763.
Joshua Major, stage director for Ezio, whose only previous experience with opera seria has een Mozart’s last example, La clemenza di Tito, reports excitement about the possibilities of Ezio. He characterizes the libretto, which deals with a successful military leader, Aetius (Ezio in Italian), who finds himself in competition for the hand of Fulvia, whose father wishes to marry her to the Emperor Valentinian III in order to cement his own pathway to the throne, as “terse, precise, human, very subtle.” The intertwining of love and power politics is a frequent element in Baroque opera, and Major comments that the challenge with the string of da capo arias is to keep moving the story forward. Gluck helps by generally making the later arias shorter as the plot unfolds, revealing the moods of each character and their part in the changing drama. At the end, Gluck composed a trio—something rare at the time—when all the conflicts of different loyalties (to country, family, truth) are in the open.
The production’s a “modern” look, though thankfully does not puts the king in a business suit and the military hero in fascist uniform. “We want the production to be fresh and focused on storytelling.”
When I asked conductor Gil Rose how he happened to light on Ezio out of all the dozens of early operas that Gluck wrote before undertaking the “reforms” in the few operas that we hear anymore, he said he scanned many lists of possibilities and chose Ezio because of its compact cast (six characters, no chorus) and great libretto. He found another important advantage—a good edition of the music available from Bärenreiter. The recitatives are “tight and dramatic.” He did not cut repeats in the arias (as used to be done in older productions), in order to give the singers a chance to ornament as they most want to, “to give everyone a chance to show their reverse layups.”
In Ezio Randall Scotting (countertenor) appears as the Emperor Valentiniano; Jennifer Holloway (mezzo) as Fulvia, the love interest; Brenda Patterson (mezzo) as Ezio, a role originally sung by a castrato; and William Hite (tenor) as Fulvia’s father, Massimo. Jesse Darden will play Varo, and Erica Petrucelli impersonates Onoria.
Mozart composed six operas between the ages of 11 and 16. Lucio Silla premiered in Milan about a month before his 17th birthday; it achieved such success that Mozart might well have made a career in Italy if he had been given longer leave from his position in Salzburg to be involved in the production.
Bigger than Ezio. Lucio Silla will require some reworking of the unit set used for both operas, to allow more traditional mise-en-scène. Major pointed out, “Opera seria is really about exciting singers singing.”
Giovanni de Gamerra’s (1743-1803) libretto in the Metastasian tradition; (he also found his poem set to music by later composers) concerns the military-political figure that the Romans called Sulla (Lucius Cornelius Sulla, ca 138-78 BC), who as a general seized total power in Rome (providing a model for Julius Caesar a generation later) but who unexpectedly gave up his power a year before his death. As is often the case in operas on historical subjects, while some of the characters are real, the story is largely fictional.
This early masterpiece of Mozart’s began by bowing to Milanese taste for elaborate arias, but as he moved into the later acts, he seemed more and more to have been influenced by Gluck’s earliest reform operas, including Alceste. Still, it is a superbly crafted opera seria, by far the best work that Mozart wrote during his youthful travels to Italy.
Michael Maniaci (countertenor) essays Ceciclio; Katy Lindhart (soprano); makes her Boston debut as Giunia; Sara Heaton (soprano) impersonates Celia; Yeghishe Maucharyan (tenor) plays Lucio Silla; and Joanna Mongiardo (soprano) sings Cinna.
Each spring Odyssey Opera offers a view to the future in the back of the program for its festival—an announcement of the opera to be given its concert performance in the early fall. No hint as of yet, except that Gil Rose has often commented about the long list of operas that he would love to perform. “I’m not interested in the same 25 pieces that fill the general repertory. Don’t get me wrong—I like the pieces, and would like to conduct them. But it seems like I’d be aiding and abetting the problem.” So word about next solution to “the problem” may be discovered inside the program as early as June 3rd.
Tickets are available at odysseyopera.org or by calling 617-826-1626.