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Puccini’s Queen?  No, Pacini’s

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Amy Shoremount-Obra and James Demler (Kathy Wittman photo)

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.)

Amy Shoremount-Obra and Alise Jordheim (Kathy Wittman photo)

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.

6 Comments »

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6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. We attended the Sunday performance, and it was marvelous. We were dismayed to see that the house was not full. Despite the (relative) obscurity of the opera, it was truly a gem of Romantic music making, brilliantly performed. I suppose the opera public, generally speaking, prefers the war horses, but they made a serious mistake if they didn’t attend this presentation.

    Comment by Jerry — November 3, 2019 at 8:07 pm

  2. I came to Boston with a Bel Canto opera-loving friend from Washington D.C. for BOTH performances of this opera and we were not disappointed. My friend and I both love this work and consider it to be Pacini’s masterpiece. It surely deserves to be performed in its own right. I can only speculate that the reviewer for The Boston Globe has an outright bias against Bel Canto opera or does not appreciate the sterling work that is being done by Odyssey Opera in bringing unfamiliar works to the public. His review did not discuss in any detail the singing and was full of snide comments about other factors (sets, costumes, and plot elements) that any serious opera-lover would realize are incidental to the enjoyment of such a splendid work as Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra. Kudos to Odyssey Opera for enriching my life for presenting such a deserving and unjustly-neglected work. I hope to be able to support Odyssey Opera in the future by coming again to Boston to exerience such works with a cast as the one for “Maria” which was outstanding throughout.

    Comment by Robert Suslowicz — November 4, 2019 at 6:47 pm

  3. Superb all-around. Now, three weeks later, this performance still resonates. Pacini, now he’s the man and we want more–and I didn’t know his name until Odyssey scheduled him! OK, about the house’s not being full. Perhaps we have seen the limits of the market for intelligent opera for Boston. BLO just packed them in by being “Woke” and simulating same-sex sex acts on stage with “Fellow Travelers”; otherwise BLO relies on Warhorses and Euro-trash stagings. Now I will go see rareties and oddities because I want to and I’m interested–255 operas seen and counting. But there are many other people who will go to an opera only because they want to be seen as “cultured” and “cultured” people go to opera. So such people only go to Figaro and Aida and “Cav & Pag”; the same sort of people who go to the MFA only when there’s a blockbuster Monet show on. Yes, I fault WGBH and the “WCRBification” of classical culture maybe–next time I’ll check the audience age at Odyssey. Now, the other side of marketing is making people aware of what you offer, and I wonder if not enough people knew of Odyssey’s offering. I notice vans & mini-busses from semior citizen abodes at concerts, operas, and other “cultural” events; perhaps a tie-in there. We need to get more people to Odyssey. How aware are people of Boston Opera Calendar or our own Boston Musical Intelligencer and its event calendar which I look at regularly. Tonight I was at NEC’s “Postcard from Morocco” and the person next to me was not aware of the BOC nor the BMI. (Briefly put: the NEC “kids” did a good job of what’s now a period piece from 1971 of then cutting edge opera theater; it’s a better work than “Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night”; go see it and cross another menace off the list as another work you never need see again. Sorry, NEC, but that’s my review and thanks for doing it so cheaply!) What I do recommend that those of us who appreciate what Odyssey is doing for us is to put our shoulders to the wheel and push harder with more money and talking up Odyssey.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — November 24, 2019 at 1:26 am

  4. I left out program ads, small ads in other group’s programs to let other people know what’s being offered; I rely on them. How many of us keep a lookout for things? WHRB was running concert ads; I don’t know if WGBH/WCRB still does–and WGBH might actually drive customers awake with their saccharine “cuteness” quotient. But do talk up Odyssey.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — November 24, 2019 at 1:36 am

  5. “otherwise BLO relies on …” is somewhat unfair. In the past couple of years we’ve heard Schoenberg in Hollywood and The Handmaid’s Tale, both brilliantly realized.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 24, 2019 at 8:23 am

  6. BLO has also given us a weak uninspired Threepenny that I noticed at its end people were getting their coats on rather than applauding to make a fast getaway. BLO blows hot–and BLO can blow cold with flops. Their Carmen and their Tosca were examples of Euro-Trash staging; Europe sees a lot of libretto-ignoring warped stagings using Marxist and other current leftist tropes; think of Tosca rolling on the floor embracing a crucifix at the Met. I skipped those productions; I understand Tosca shot herself and the giant bull backdrop of the recent Carmen was a meme of its content–and they had done such a good Carmen back in 2009 (A last minute review in the old Boston Phoenix got me to that one with only hours to spare)!
    Yes, Carmen DID sell out. OK, I have this thesis that there is a “Woke Sweepstakes” for a “Woke Pulitzer” going on right now among opera companies, all vying to be “with it/WOKE” in this the Age of Trump. From Glimmerglass’s “Blue” (so-so) to White Snake’s “Dreamer” (a winner) to BLO’s “Handmaid’s Tale” (??). I think BLO is trying too visibly hard at this shtick. This season a great mind-opening/blowing Pagliacci was followed by Fellow Travellers with its simulated on stage gay sex which led to the walk out by several audience members. Gay subjects are au courant in these Woke Times and BLO is with the times; I shudder at what they may do with Norma or Guilio Cesare in Egitto. I know BLO’s Mission is to bring the masses to opera–or is it to bring opera to the masses? Concentrate on the story and the music, guys, and stop trying to be so “relevant” as people said back in the 1970’s!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — December 2, 2019 at 6:39 am

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