My musical odyssey to the Huntington Avenue Theater last night led me to the apparent North American premiere of Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra (Mary, Queen of England) by Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867), a prolific and once-famous composer not one of whose notes I had heard before in any genre.
Just four years younger than Rossini, Pacini wrote his first opera at the age of 17. At 22, he had his first production at La Scala, which received 47 performances, making him a leading figure in Italian opera. By 1835 he was losing the earlier acclaim, partly because of rising competition from Bellini and Donizetti. He stopped composing operas for several years, turning to educating young musicians at a school in Viareggio, and giving them experience in opera performance in a theater he had built there. In 1839 he began composing operas again, since the death of Bellini and the declining health of Donizetti greatly reduced the competition. (The rise of Verdi was only just beginning.)
For this second half of his career, he determined to write in a more dramatic style than the pure bel canto that had dominated in his work and that of the other leaders of the earlier decade, and to find a more dramatic musical approach. In this regard, he soon achieved a great success with Saffo (Sappho) in 1840, and continued for several years afterward.
Pacini himself described a number of changes he made in his work of the early 1840s, imcluding Maria, Reglina d’Inghilterra (1843). It is very much part of this later style, with a significant reduction in the fioriture so characteristic of Rossini, who had been his most significant model, a serious new focus on the orchestra for both coloristic effect and dramatic intensity, and an increasing blending of the vocal parts so as to connect recitative and arias into a smoother flow.
In this Odyssey Opera production it was easy to see why Pacini enjoyed considerable acclaim, at least for a time, and less easy to understand why his operas have so thoroughly disappeared. Once again Boston audiences are indebted to the questing imagination of Gil Rose in assembling a operatic season that provides one unique experience after another. This year’s focus on operas about the Tudor monarchs is a case in point. But the Pacini opera mounted here is strong enough that it does not by any means require thematic programming to justify its performance.
The opera is set to a libretto by Leopoldo Tarantini based on a play by Victor Hugo (a very popular source for romantic operas at the time). The setting is in the early months of Mary’s rule; the plot has nothing to do with actual historical events, but rather is built up of conflicting love relations among the characters, nobility and commoner alike.
One striking feature of the opera is that the title character does not appear at all in Act I, which allows its action to establish all the other emotional relationships. (In the description that follows, I have given the oddly spelled characters’ names in more appropriate English form,)
First comes the hatred of England’s Lord Chancellor, Gualtiero Churchill (bass James Demler) for Queen Mary’s favorite, the Scot Riccardo Fennimore, whom he hopes to catch visiting his mistress so as to warn the Queen of his double-dealing. Fennimore’s mistress is Clotilde Talbot (soprano Alisa Jordheim), a foundling who has been raised by the commoner Ernesto Malcolm (baritone Leroy Davis) who intends soon to marry her. She has not revealed to him that she has fallen in love with Fennimore (tenor Kameron Lopreore). Ernesto sings of his passion for Clotilde in a duet in which he fails to recognize that her love has passed to someone else. After she leaves, the remainder of the act surely qualifies as one of the most testosterone-drenched passages in all of opera: the three men encounter one another, each determined to gain what he wants (love or power, by turns) even if it involves violence and mayhem. Ernesto challenges Fenimoore’ presence, only to be shown a letter from Clotilde promising him her love. Fenimoore escapes Ernesto’s violent reaction; Churchill returns and promises that he had Ernesto will be able to undo Fennimore.
Act II begins with a lively celebration at court. Mary has raised Fennimore to the rank of Earl (the Italian libretto continues to use “Conte”—Count—for his title). Queen Mary (soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra) enters, worried about the fidelity of her favorite. The chorus of peers urges her to marry the King of Spain, but she seeks one whom she can genuinely love. As the monarch, a woman of political power, Mary is presented by Pacini as the one character in the opera who regularly includes coloratura decorations in the climactic passages of her arias. Since Pacini has cut back from his earlier emphasis on these decorative passages, this use of brilliant coloratura established Mary, through her musical line, as the dominant character on the stage, which Shoremouth-Obra sings with exceptional brilliance. (Clotilde has the next largest amount of coloratura in her part, which makes her, emotionally if not politically, the second strongest figure in terms of arousing audience sympathy) Indeed, the casting of these two sopranos was a masterful stroke, because their physical and vocal characters perfectly contrast the two women: Mary, taller and more physically imposing, with a powerful assertiveness in her voice (especially when confronting her rival), Clotilde, slighter and more delicate, with an appealing, sometimes pleading lyrical quality, even during her coloratura passages. And yet, when they sing together, in duet with parallel thirds and sixths (especially in Act III) expressing the painful romantic concerns of each one, the voices blend beautifully.
The complications mount. Fennimore insists that he truly loves the queen, but Churchill has brought Clotilde to court, and he presents the dagger that Fennimore dropped during his argumentation in Act I, claiming that the two men were joining forces to assassinate the queen.
The third act is built dramatically through one of Victor Hugo’s favorite dramatic tricks: Setting up the denouement in such a way that the principal character expects an enemy to die, only to have the tables turned unexpectedly. (Think of Verdi’s Rigoletto, based on Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself), in which Rigoletto believes that his paid assassin has removed the seducing Count, only to realize too late that the body in the sack is that of his innocent, seduced daughter Gilda.)
Both Fennimore and Ernesto have received the death sentence, but the Queen wants to save Fennimore without contradicting the death sentence she herself has decreed. Believing that Clotilde is eager to save Fennimore, she arranges with the guard that Clotilde may take one prisoner of her choice out of the prison. Left alone Clotilde calls for Ernesto, and the two renew their vows of love before setting out. Fennimore’s face is veiled as he is led to his execution; the Queen believes that it is Ernesto being executed in the guise of Ernesto. Too late she learns the truth. Her final aria moves from an ecstatically joyous expression that she has managed to save Fennimore to a plea for divine forgiveness for the actions by which she brought about his death—after which she collapses as the curtain falls.
Throughout we heard excellent singing, particularly, as already noted, with the two women, who made strong dramatic foils. Fennimore’s attempt to convince Queen Mary that he truly loves her in Act II and his aria of regret (Act III) at having seduced Clotilde and brought about the unhappy state of affairs were both passionately expressed, one dissembling, the other genuinely felt. Ernesto’s Act III duet with Clotilde as she arranged their escape carried the appropriate relief and energy. Churchill’s role was more monochromatic, due to circumstances of plot, but was carried well with the dark bass voice.
Steve Maler noted that, with the design team (Brooke Stanton, costume designer; Jeffrey Allen Peterson, scenic designer, Jorge Arroyo, lighting designer), he had chosen to produce an “open, metaphorical space” with only a minimum of set dressing: the Queen’s throne in Act II, the jail cells and bars in Act III, and a striking backlit gallows structure, with the light turning from a brilliant white to red for a symbolic representation of the moment of execution, and colorful costumes suggesting mixed periods (especially for the chorus).
Rose paced the drama most effectively and balanced the richly expressive orchestra in effects generally richer than those of many bel canto operas. Once again, Odyssey Opera opens up the long and varied history of the genre with a work that is definitely worth knowing, in a performance that contributes splendidly to Boston’s musical season.
Repeats Sunday at 2:00.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.