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BMOP/Odyssey Debuts Rosner Rarity

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David Salsbery Fry, James Demler, William Hite, Aaron Engebreth (Kathy Wittman photo)

An untold number of operas languish in archives, or in a composer’s estate, without ever having been heard. So, when one of these products of a composer’s hopes and dreams finds its way to actual sound, composer (if alive) and singers, instrumentalists, and music lovers can take its measure.

Two Boston organizations have led the entire city in bringing newly commissioned or under-performed works to our attention, both under the direction of the ever-enterprising conductor Gil Rose. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, founded in 1996, and Odyssey Opera, founded in 2016, have played major roles in Boston’s musical life separately and, on occasion, jointly. One of those joint occasions occurred at Jordan Hall with Saturday’s ’s world premiere performance of The Chronicle of Nine by the late Arnold Rosner (1945-2013),

Arnold Rosner is all but unknown, though he composed actively from childhood. The fact that his early life and musical education took place in the third quarter of the 20th century—from the end of World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War—meant that he came to music at a time when the “proper” music fostered in the academic world was serialism, always emphasizing novelty in the application of the 12-tone system, an approach that did not at all recommend itself to Rosner. He aimed for an advanced degree in composition, but his teachers at the State University of New York in Buffalo did not accept his compositions as appropriate for the degree.

So he decided instead to get his degree in music theory and wrote a dissertation on Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), a Somerville-born composer whose voluminous output drew upon non-western musical traditions as well as some of the earliest traditions of European music. Rosner’s own musical approach drew upon his passion for Renaissance and early Baroque music as well as tonal composers of the 20th century, such as Bloch and Hindemith. He appreciated the lushness of Wagner but felt that the music of the 18th century, from the late stages of Baroque music through the Viennese classics, had made a musical wrong turn. All this contributes to the kind of opera that he produced in The Chronicle of Nine.

At a dinner in 1981, a bridge partner happened to remark to Rosner about Florence Stevenson play: “The Chronicle of Nine would make a nice opera.” Stevenson offered to turn her play into an opera libretto, and the composer went to work. The opera was never produced in his lifetime, though Rosner arranged some instrumental passages from his score into a four-movement symphony, recorded as his Symphony No. 7, “The Tragedy of Queen Jane,” Op. 78, on an Albany CD, with the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Palmer. Until Saturday evening, that was the only music from the opera could be heard.

The material of the opera certainly fits into the theme of the 2019-20 season of Odyssey Opera, devoted as it is to operas about the Tudor monarchs, among whom Lady Jane Grey ruled for a mere nine days in the middle of the Tudor succession.

At the time he wrote The Chronicle of Nine, Rosner had no experience of operatic composition. Still, he had very specific ideas as to what he wanted. He intended for the vocal presentation to be “impassioned recitative,” inspired by composers like Monteverdi or Wagner. He compared its basic character, as an opera in English, with Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea. He avoids anything like the melodious, tuneful structure of arias. Yet he was careful to set the English language in musical lines that generally capture the rhythm and intonation of actual speech. He sought a rich orchestral color, no doubt thinking of it in the same terms as his admiration for Wagner.

The preparation for this production involved a great deal of attention, especially to the performing materials, which presumably included just the composer’s autograph score. With the permission of the Arnold Rosner Estate (Irene Rosner David, executrix), the composer’s longtime friend Walter Simmons provided research, organist-composer Carson Cooman edited the materials and coordinated the project, and Jeffrey Grossman prepared and engraved the score and parts.

The singers, appearing costumed and with their parts memorized, worked with minimal props in front of the BMOP orchestra. Brooke Stanton designed excellent costumes, and Rachel Padula Shufelt produced some fine wigs to go along with Jennifer Demarco Gregory’s makeup and Anne Dresbach’s lighting.

Whenever one hears a first opera by any composer, one wonders how well the composer projects the drama, the characters, the plot, the changing moods. Even in the cases of composers ultimately recognized as operatic masters, the essential sense of the stage rarely arrives fully developed at the first try. And the element that more than any other contributes to the development of an opera composer is the opportunity for the composer to hear and see the final result of the long labor.

How effective did the libretto turn out to be? How expressive was the setting of the words to music? How much did it reflect that emotional feelings and subconscious reactions of the various characters? How does the orchestra back up these emotions and tensions with colorful and varied musical content? And, perhaps most fundamental: Does the opera reflect the constantly changing pace of life, as represented in the story?

In these regards, The Chronicle of Nine struck me as being, quite clearly, a first opera. If Rosner had been able to see and hear a complete production—or even a semi-staged performance as effective as the one Gil Rose directed on Friday night—he would, I suspect, have found elements to rework in an improved version, or to guide his creation of another opera.

The Chronicle of Nine is divided into three acts, of three scenes each.  Each act begins with an extended orchestral number, and these offer enough variety of mood and tone to set the audience up to anticipate what is coming next. And then a minstrel (excellently sung by Gene Stenger, making his debut with the company) describes the basic situation rather in the style of an Elizabethan lute song.

But once the actual story begins, the drama starts to falter. The orchestration is lush, indeed, but the basic sonorities vary little, and the unchanging pacing drags. Rosner made a point of being inspired by the music of the Renaissance, and, of course, the plot is set in the period. But for all his passion for counterpoint, there seems to be none at all in the style of the composer’s favorite music-historical period. In setting the words, he was metrically very flexible, but the pace seemed generally monotonous.

The struggle over the crown after the early death of Henry VIII’s son was fraught with maneuvering and warlike parties promoting Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry VII, since the two daughters of Henry VIII were seen as impossible: Mary, because she was the Catholic daughter of the Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, who, though a staunch Protestant, was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the woman Henry married after forcing the divorce that broke with Rome and whom he executed when she failed to produce a son.

In the first act, the young Jane’s future is decided by her parents (William Hite and Rebecca Krouner, the latter debuting). Jane (Megan Pachecano) will be married, like it or not, to Guildford Dudley (Eric Carey, debut), whose parents (Aaron Engebreth, Krista Rivers) are enthusiastic about the proposal, because it puts the family into the line of the monarchy. During the scenes of the discussions with the two sets of parents, Rosner sets the conversation straightforwardly, but despite the sometime tense elements that the libretto hints at, the dialogue moves at a steady, largely unchanging pace, and the orchestral support consists of steady and lush sonority that changes less than the listener might hope. Jane retires to consider her prospects in a lamenting mood. The one extended passage of the first act that offers variety to the ear is a suite of dances for the wedding festivities (with no singing).  In the final scene of the act, the groom’s parents discuss the political situation and the effect of Mary’s party on the rule of their new daughter-in-law.

The second act (played, in this performance, directly after the first) began with an orchestral lament for the death of Edward VI. In the council room, Jane hears the pronouncement of the young king’s death and a discussion of the succession. The presence of the male chorus in the discussion energizes this scene over most of the remaining part of the act, in which traitors (from Jane’s point of view), the Earl of Arundel (James Demler, debut) and the Earl of Pembroke (David Salsbery Fry) discuss their intention to support Jane’s coronation while secretly aiding Mary. They join Jane’s partisans in planning their response to Mary’s troops marching on London. Again, the dialogue, which should be quick and intense, mostly plods along at the steady pace that was characteristic of so much of the first act.

The final act is in many ways the most musically and dramatically satisfying. Again, the minstrel lays the scene after the orchestral prelude. From him we learn of the defeat in battle of Dudley (Jane’s father-in-law) and Jane’s imprisonment in the Tower. Jane is allowed to see her new husband. Though she had earlier expressed a complete lack of interest in the proposed marriage, she and Dudleigh now have a kind of love scene—not one of high passion, but rather sweet and gentle, and still the first scene in which the libretto expresses fairly strong emotion that is also projected in the orchestral color and the duetting voices.

Stephanie Kacoyanis and Megan Pachecano (Kathy Wittman photo)

Then comes the most effective scene in the entire opera, a pointed dialogue between the two queens, Mary and Jane. (Had Florence Stevenson taken inspiration from the comparable passage in Schiller’s Mary Stuart, set some 30 years later, in which the playwright imagines Queen Elizabeth confronting Mary Queen of Scots in her prison cell and convincing Elizabeth that Mary must go to the block?) Several factors make this scene so strong. First, most of the orchestra stops playing, and six cellos carry the scene. The dark and lamenting color captures the mood more vividly than any other passage in the opera. Next comes sharp conversation brilliantly carried out by Megan Pachchano’s Lady Jane and Stephanie Kacoyanis’s Lady Mary. Mary informs Jane that her father and uncles have failed in their attempted rebellion. Mary cannot pardon Jane, since the security of the crown requires her execution.

The final scene begins with a setting of “The Cries of London,” a recreation of London street cries by the chorus. Jane sings her farewell, standing by the headsman’s block. As the chorus recalls words from the Gospel according to Luke, which Jane had sung in the middle of the first act, she kneels and places her head on the block, and the lights suddenly go out.

As so often with BMOP and Opera Odyssey, Gil Rose produced a fine show. Though the vocal ranges occasionally seemed uncomfortably low for this or that singer, most of the opera was very well sung. Had Rosner been willing to try some more elaborate vocal lines—after all, even Wagner didn’t keep the arioso quality in the dialogue passages of (say) the first act of Die Walküre without flaring up in an intensely lyrical climax for a passage—the audience may have taken a stronger interest.

Still, the decision to mount an opera that no one had ever heard, especially one that seemed to fit so well into the season’s theme, must have seemed like a charm. If it achieved less than a complete success, we can still thank Gil Rose and those who worked with him, for bringing forth an intriguing and totally unknown opera.

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.

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

  1. Steven Ledbetter is such a gentle soul and supreme musicologist/reviewer. It is hard to quibble with what he writes. He is right on, if not a bit forgiving, about the score and libretto. The one true bit of drama was indeed the scene between the queens (if one avoided the script). But the score was unvarying in tempo, instrumentation, dynamics… However, some problems can be avoided in future productions by ANY ensembles. The huge orchestra meant the stage had to be extended, resulting in the singers not being visible through the railings, if one were sitting in the balcony. A pole obstructed being able to read the projected script if one were sitting at the wrong angle. A couple of the chorus members had flashlights to read her score, but the light from one shone like a full moon right out onto the stage. I cringed for Gil. Nonetheless, all carping aside, it is indeed a good idea to present works that we have not heard.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — February 6, 2020 at 5:23 pm

  2. My friend and fellow reviewer John Ehrlich wrote about this presentation that, about half-way through, “aural tedium set in.” Amen. Having also attended the latest (not last, thank God) Jordi Savall concert, so well and intelligently reviewed here ny Jeffrey Ganz, I could not help wondering how well Rosner really understood the music he was said to have admired?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 9, 2020 at 8:19 am

  3. “aural tedium set in” a great unfortunate description. This was the only Rosner I’ve ever heard. Perhaps if he had held a workshop (like the one I saw for “Freedom Ride” in November) “Nine” might have been improved once Rosner realized what was happening–but maybe not. I’ve thought a few times how composition might be if we made our harmonic progressions differently. I’ve heard and danced to a lot of British Isles dance music and some of the tunes “work” differently from the usual tonic-dominant pattern; how might a larger work using those principles sound. Rosner gave us his take this time. I just thought of the Phrygian cadence, probably the Last Remnant of pre-modern harmony. My other thought now was of the American Shape-Note tradition as in the Sacred Harp; “Soar Away” a popular number and fuging tune was composed in 1935! Now how would one go about making larger works that “worked” out of this? An intellectual academic enterprise, the Harry Turtledove of music..

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 19, 2020 at 8:31 pm

  4. I forgot to add that BMOP/Odyssey’s doing this work was (almost) an act of filial piety, the attitude that Handel operas were afforded 80-90 years ago. As for Jordan Hall there ARE problems with sight-lines and over the years I have learned to pick my seat VERY carefully. I had hoped when they did their renovations they might “improve” the seating arrangement and open up new aisles; right now there are some “awkward” areas—particularly in the balcony. Some yeas ago there was a performance in the Modern Theatre of an Argento opera that there were serious problems with the “supertitle” placement but I forgot what my objections were an didn’t post them here. I do recall that the supertitles were in ellipses off to the sides at stage level and one could only with great difficulty watch the action while reading what was going on.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 19, 2020 at 8:48 pm

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