In “An Afternoon of Opera by Female Composers” on Saturday in Brookline Public Library’s Hunneman Hall, Soir des Femmes revived some worthy historic repertoire.
A profound disparity in the heritage and legacy of female creators in opera inspired Scottish soprano/director Charlotte McKechnie to create the first Soir des Femmes last summer, exposing audiences to operatic gems by women composers that had disappeared from or were completely missed by the repertory. That first concert was such a hit with both audiences and critics alike that McKechnie decided to make it a long-term project. Now, Soir des Femmes produces at least one full opera and three smaller concerts each season, with performances in Boston and Glasgow.
Eva Dell’Acqua was an early 20th-century Italian composer who wrote pieces for chamber orchestra, voice and piano, orchestral works, and opera. Her opera Zizi (1906) incorporates the optimism of its Belle Époque era, detailing the confounding twists and turns of romance, yet ending happily. With lovely, pleasing music and airs, it is the portrait of idyllic charm.
Excerpts from Justine Chen’s Jeanne, a starkly moving, powerful piece with lyrical English vocal writing and smart, lucid text based on Joan of Arc’s capture and death followed. Chen has recently received commissions from New York City Opera and New York City Ballet. The excerpts from Jeanne began and closed with an otherworldly vocalise by Anna Ward, who played Joan. Her acting and presentation was solid and rich in subtext. Baritone Ethan Sagin played a merciless, jealous inquisitor, who could not understand why God had chosen this “arrogant” girl over him, who had faithfully served the Church his entire life. Experiencing Joan’s ruggedly determined defiance clash with the empowered patriarchy was viscerally dramatic theatre.
Amy Beach’s Cabildo displayed the composer’s fluid and flawless vocal and piano writing in the context of the story of a ghostly Lady Valerie who sets free the pirate Pierre Lafitte. He loved her, was falsely accused and imprisoned for her murder, but he mysteriously escaped from prison. A newly married couple come across their story while touring the prison cells of The Cabildo. The wife, played by McKechnie, is entranced by LaFitte’s enigmatic escape. She falls asleep and dreams of Lady Valerie’s apparition unlocking the door to her lover’s cell.
Lucile Grétry wrote her two-hour opera, Le Mariage d’Antonio 1786 as a 14-year old prodigy. In her short life, it was performed 47 times at Paris’s Comédie-Italienne. The composer died of tuberculosis just three years later. Her opera’s beautiful music tells the lighthearted tale of a young couple—Colette and Antonio— whose parents disapprove of their desire to marry on account of the bride’s young age. In the excerpt, McKechnie’s acting was superbly comical as the girl’s mother. After the performance, she explained that the opera ends with Antonio fortuitously helping a beggar who turns out to be a king and rewards the young man with riches. Finally, the bride’s parents approve of the wedding!
Famous as a singer, but certainly much less so as a composer, Pauline Viardot, in Cendrillon, treats the familiar story elegantly. David Evans as the prince and McKechnie as Cendrillon had great romantic chemistry. Anna Ward and Evans (who also played step-brother Armelinde) delivered a lusciously comical portrayal of Cendrillon’s superficial step-siblings.
The Brookline performance would not have been possible without the work of music director, Max Philips and pianist Stephanie Mao. Philips coached the ensemble in historical context, musicality, and diction, and according to McKechnie, “gave very pertinent insights into each compositional style.” After the show, via email, Philips explained that Mao played from a piano-vocal score for most of the operas. They did not have a reduction for Le Mariage d’Antonio, however, and had to play from the full score. “On the other hand, Viardot’s Cendrillon was written originally for only piano and singers, so here we were simply performing the work in its original form. Cabildo was written for singers with piano, violin and cello, so here the piano “reduction” was much more similar to the original setting than in Zizi, which the composer had scored for a full orchestra.” Philips explained that though it is likely to still exist somewhere, they had not been able to locate a full score or parts for Zizi. McKechnie’s next step is to make contact with specific musicologists in different archives and find new directions in which to look.”
Soir des Femmes’s ongoing efforts will continue this August, when it will perform Amy Beach’s Cabildo throughout Scotland in honor of the composer’s 150th birthday.
Stephanie Susberich is a soprano and composer living in Somerville. She writes about music on her blog, www.sopranointhecity.com