Rennaissance Men’s “A Night at the Opera” delighted the small audience gathered in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Newton Lower Falls on Saturday night. In the ensemble’s highly energetic and well-crafted outing, the nine-men displayed considerable vocal talent both as soloists and in small groups. This show vibrated with excited energy and eager advocacy for hidden gems and chestnuts alike.
From the very outset, the RenMen did away with any misconception that this evening would be a stodgy re-cap of the opera’s greatest hits. The opener, Stephen Lanigan-O’Keeffe’s spoof translated Rigoletto’s “La Donna ѐ mobile” as Turn off your mobile. They immediately swooped into Albert Lortzing’s re-working of the overture to Die Zauberflote for 8-part a cappella men’s choir, which stuffs Mozart’s already-garrulous preface with a fleet, palaverous ode to Mozart and his most famous successors. Upending this hero-worship, Mozart himself made an appearance later in the program with “Leck mich im Arsch” (which, in these hallowed pages of the Intelligencer, requires no translation). “Cosi Cosa”—a mainstay of the Marx brothers’ A Night at the Opera—along with Richard Genee’s “Insalata Italiana,” a boisterous take-down of Italian opera, found their names among those of Bizet and Puccini.
Four anthems from 19th-century composers formed the core of RenMen’s program. Verdi’s Inno Popolare, commissioned for 1848 Italian Revolution against the Austrian Empire, sets Goffredo Mameli’s rousing call to arms to a jaunty march; RenMen presented Verdi’s hymn with colorful brio. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Rossini’s Preghiera, a solemn meditation on God and nature poured forth with gracefully shaped lines and deep emotional intelligence. Other choruses were less successful: Bizet’s rarely-heard Saint Jean de Pathmos, sets a text by Victor Hugo in which the author of the Bible’s Revelations ruminates on the coming rapture and the end of the world. Bizet’s setting is dramatic, bordering on the sentimental; RenMen fully committed to the difficult score, but the ensemble too-often fell on the wrong side of fine distinction between solemn and ponderous. Wagner made an appearance later in the evening with An Weber’s Grabe composed for the occasion of Carl Maria von Weber’s reburial in Dresden. Despite the ensemble’s complete engagement with the tastefully-reserved music, the smaller space of the church and slower tempo emphasized difficulties with tuning.
No evening at the opera would be complete without show-stopping arias and duets. Well-known scenes from bel canto showcased RenMen’s considerable vocal talent. Tenor Fausto Miro and baritone Will Prapestis collaborated memorably in Puccini’s “O Mimi tu più non torni!” from La Boheme; both voices basked languidly in Puccini’s bereft tribute to La Boheme’s heroine. Later, as Don Jose in Bizet’s “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen, Mr. Miro revealed his clear, powerful tenor, resonant and easy even in the highest reaches of his voice. After intermission, Benjamin Pfeil played Sarastro in Mozart’s “O Isis und Osiris,” wielding a voluminous bass that impressed as much in its range as in its depth. RenMen members Thomas Dawkins and Peter Schilling accompanied superbly on the piano.
Lesser-known 21st-century arias also delighted. Perhaps most unusual was Rufus Wainwright’s mournful “Damned Ladies,” which laments the mistreatment of the great female characters of opera, berating them for so easily falling victim to brutal demise; Anthony Garza’s sultry baritone graciously channeled Wainwright’s regretful heartbreak. Alexander Nishibun and Thomas Dawkins collaborated in “A Hundred Thousand Stars” from Jake Heggie’s 2011 commission from the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, For a Look or a Touch, setting to music journal entries and true stories from gay men persecuted in the Holocaust.
To a man, the RenMen’s rare, refreshing sophistication and energy deserved the unanimous standing ovation.
Sudeep Agarwala is a scientist by day and an amateur musician who has performed with many choral groups in and around Boston. He has been writing for the Intelligencer since 2011.