IN: Reviews

Historic Women’s Opera Scenes Debut


Pauline Viardot (file photo)
Pauline Viardot (file photo)

An eager and very talented group of young musicians performed four operatic scenes by historic women composers, giving what may very well be the modern premieres (and definitely the area premieres) of works of varied styles and periods. The ad-hoc group of five singers and a pianist brought a determined “let’s give a show” mentality to “Soir des Femmes; A Night of Operas by Female Composers” on Sunday. Three of four scenes were effectively staged and engagingly acted (the Lucile Grétry work was sung from scores).

There are many reasons, some quite arbitrary, why one composer over another winds up in the standard repertoire. It’s my belief that by acknowledging sexism as reality, and working to overcome its influence, we can ensure that neglect never results from the fact that the composer is – or was – a woman.

The Scottish soprano Charlotte McKechnie, a kindred spirit who shares this belief, is also a brilliant musician and talented organizer, as she demonstrated through Sunday night’s show. The showcased-four did not include any big-names, but nevertheless, a devoted audience showed up to sample the fare.

Zizi from 1906 by Belgian composer singer and Eva Dell-Acqua (1856-1930) seems a delightful rom-com, from the taste we were offered. McKechnie was coyly flirtatious in the title role. The music was mostly the luscious melodies and waltz-filled language of early 20th-century operetta, although there were a few unexpected harmonic twists and moments of impressionist atmosphere. Christian Schwebler (as the love interest for Zizi’s feminine wiles) had a rich and resonant voice, although times seemed too powerful for the small space. All four singers (David Evans and Anna Ward had supporting roles) formed a dramatically strong ensemble.

Ingeborg von Bronsart’s (1840-1913) Singspiel Jery and Bätely (of 1873), apparently one of her most successful works, opened with a rather stodgy; a hymn-like melody setting a father’s vague worry about the times. But the aria by Jery (boyfriend of Bätely, the father’s daughter) sounded fiery and driven, even Schubertian in its dramatic sweep, as compellingly sung by Evans.

Lucile Grétry composed Le Mariage d’Antonio in 1786 when she was only fourteen. Her father, the prolific composer André Grétry, claimed that he orchestrated it, and that led some critics to suspect that he had also written the music. But the opera’s modern editor Robert Adelson believes the composer credit belongs to young Lucile. He noted that several young female composers achieved success in this era, probably encouraged by the Rousseau-influenced belief that the untainted innocence of a young girl could produce music of great beauty and purity.

Sadly, Lucile died of tuberculosis as a teenager. Le Mariage d’Antonio was originally labelled a divertissement, and the selection we heard demonstrated the lightness and simplicity of the style, with two sisters (McKechnie and Sarah Mitchell) engaged in preparing for the older one’s wedding, and discussing what it feels like to be in love. The duet showcased the two women through ensemble writing with lilting melodic sweeps in parallel thirds, in lightly textured music of great charm.

Adams House Pool
Adams House Pool before conversion

Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) is known as a member of a distinguished family of singers. Some of her music has been recorded, but is certainly too little known, and its artistic power was immediately evident. An intense instrumental poem preceded Cendrillion’s (McKechnie) musing on her unhappy situation, pondering a folk-song about a prince and princess. When she takes pity on a poor beggar (of course, a prince in disguise), she is interrupted by her spoiled step-siblings. Hilarious as this duo, Anna Ward and David Evans looked like they were just back from a shopping binge at “Forever 21.” Ward’s shriek immediately threw the drama into the mode of outrageous comedy. But of course, in the end, Cendrillion and the prince wind up together with a sublime love duet (McKechnie and Evans).  It was impossible to hear this music and not wonder in disbelief that it is not an operatic mainstay.

The Adams House Pool Theater (yes, we sat within the tile and marble interior of a former Harvard swimming pool) might have much to recommend it as a theater in October (good site lines, crisp acoustics, intimate atmosphere), but, lacking air-conditioning and a decent house piano, little to suggest it as concert space in July. Electric pianos may stay well in tune, but this keyboard (with its limited expressive range) did an injustice to the skill of any of the musicians involved (and the music itself) despite Stephanie Mao’s fine ministrations. In short, I look forward to hearing more from McKechnie and her friends soon, but in, I hope, in some other venue.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here.

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