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‘Soir des Femmes’ Bigger and Better


Charlotte McKechnie

Nine months ago I reported on an enterprising group of young musicians who performed scenes from operas by historic female composers. However, the venue had only an electric piano, not what the enterprise deserved. So now Charlotte McKechnie and her “Soir” is back, and the Brookline Public Library Hunneman Hall venue has a Steinway baby grand. This revived and expanded event, including music of four centuries, is set to soar artistically. Selections from two works have been added: Justine F. Chen’s 2007 Jeanne and the little-known Cabildo by Boston’s own Amy Beach, being fêted this year to celebrate her 150th birthday.

Over two evenings of rehearsal I saw the concert take shape. McKechnie, soprano and impresario—also organizer, instigator, producer, and stage director—will be leaving the area to start a master’s program in Glasgow. With these six varied works, all of them underappreciated, she promises to make an artistic mark on the landscape. She is joined for the ‘Soir’ by music director Maxwell Phillips and remarkable accompanist Stephanie Mao, as well as the singers discussed below. It’s time to further acknowledge women’s history of achievement in music, through the recovery of underexposed works.

The Belgian Eva Dell-Acqua (1856-1930) was a successful composer of many operas and operettas. Her delightful Zizi (1906) gives the young singers plenty of opportunity to flirt, drink, dance and otherwise frolic in the lush language of Belle Époque operetta. Soprano Anna Ward charms in the title role, with baritone Christian Schwebler engaging as her love interest.

In Justine F. Chen’s Jeanne, Ward pivots to play Joan of Arc. The imprisoned title character begins the opera with a searching prayer in the form of wordless soliloquy. Chen’s musical language is evocative, and Ward shows amazing vocal as well as emotional range. Baritone Ethan Sagin plays the Bishop Cauchon, who has his own prayer, another tour-de-force, as he agonizes over condemning Jeanne. Sagin will bring electricity and sympathy to this complex role. Chen studied the transcripts of the trial, both the one condemning Jeanne and the one more than 20 years later in which she was exonerated, and weaves the different times and perspectives together in the libretto.

Amy Beach’s chamber opera Cabildo (1932) remains unrecognized in part because it was never published. McKechnie was able to access a new edition by musicologist Nicole Powlison, who created it as part of her recent doctoral dissertation. The Cabildo is New Orleans’s famous prison, which held notorious pirate Pierre Lafitte during the war of 1812 until his mysterious escape. McKechnie, interestingly double-cast, interacts with the charismatic tenor love interest David Evans, as well as with Sagin as Lafitte. In crafting the opera, Beach drew from Creole folksongs as well as employing one of her own songs composed decades earlier, to create the rapturous duet between Lafitte and his ghostly lover, Lady Valerie.

The author makes her views known.

Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon (1904) is a chamber opera composed late in the famous diva’s long life. Viardot’s take on the story is lighter-hearted than the version by Massenet, so it is difficult to fathom why so delightful a work has received so little attention. McKechnie is a delight in the leading role; Evans and Ward reprise their hilarious take on the evil stepsiblings. Ward has another remarkable turnaround with the role of the Fairy (not the fairy-godmother, just the fairy). A musical interlude—pianist Stephanie Mao is magical in conjuring the colors of an orchestra—depicts Cendrillon’s transformation. Sagin is regal as the Prince, and the audience is sure to leave feeling “happily ever after” with the discovery of such a panoply of varied musical works.

Saturday April 15, 2 pm
Brookline Public Library
361 Washington Street, Brookline Village

More info here.

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