Odyssey Opera is coming just in time. Three years ago, there were two regional-theater-sized opera companies in town, the Boston Lyric Opera (the “BLO”), which tends to stage standard classics of the opera repertoire; and Opera Boston, which specialized in infrequently-heard, along with new and experimental works. Opera Boston’s controversial and surprise closing in 2011 left Boston operagoers saddened at the loss of a valuable musical enterprise for the city.
Now, this new company, Odyssey Opera, sets to fill the vacancy left by Opera Boston and produce grand-scale productions of rarely performed works. They began with a well-received inaugural concert performance of Wagner’s Rienzi and now they’ve produced their first fully-staged productions in a four-day festival. In repertory, the company staged Verdi’s seldom performed first comic opera, Un giorno di regno; and a double-bill of two early 20th century one-act operas, Pietro Madcagni’s Zanetto and Wolf Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna. All three productions are triumphs of acting and design.
Un giorno di regno
Un giorno di regno is Verdi’s second opera and the only comic opera that he wrote for fifty-three years until his swansong, Falstaff. In this early opera, polish officer Belfiore is posing as the Polish king in France while the real king travels undercover to regain his throne. He runs into his fiancé in France and is unable to reveal his identity. Comic confusion ensues and leads to a web of love, flirtation, and heartbreak. Or at least that’s what the synopsis in the program says happens. When La Scala commissioned Verdi to compose an opera, they forced him to choose one of a number of pre-existing libretti by Felice Romani, and Verdi wrote that he “selected the one that was least bad.” And that wasn’t an unwarranted insult. The libretto is confusing and makes it difficult to follow the basic plot of the opera. Romani doesn’t explain why Belfiore is disguised as the king until the very end of the work, so, unless we read the synopsis beforehand, we spend the entirety of the opera confused about how he got there and why he doesn’t simply reveal himself to his lover to avoid all the tension and misunderstanding. On top of this confusion, the characters’ motivations for their actions frequently are revealed after the fact and several key plot developments happen offstage and are revealed suddenly. So no matter how well done a production of Un giorno di regno is, the audience members who don’t know the story beforehand are left with that unnerving experience of not quite understanding why what’s happening onstage is happening.
With the libretto problems, it’s not surprising that the original production flopped at La Scala and has only been produced occasionally since the premiere. Despite the text, the opera certainly warrants some revival. It’s early Verdi, so the music may not have the emotional range of his later tragedies, but it’s still a vivacious, exciting score with the undeniable voice of the composer. And even if the text is confusing, the opera offers some captivating character dynamics, what with the continual complex flirtations and some hilarious, ironic attacks on royalty. Act I ends with a triumphant chorus celebrating how everyone should trust royalty, ironic in that the king is a fake. The situational comedy and bombastic score overwhelm feelings of a confused plot, at least in this production.
Stage director Joshua Major handles the comedy with a light touch, which is ideal for this piece. Staging is very simple and characters are often in almost a straight line, but the work doesn’t call for anything more complex and the subtle nuances in the blocking feel natural. The humor comes from the dramatic scenarios, not from any hamming of gimmicky gesticulations that are so common in comic opera production. With a bright, colorful set by Stephen Dobay and a lively chorus set against the nuanced performances of the leading singers, the production is festive and funny but never overwhelming.
The singers, though universally in good voice, are perhaps even more impressive for their acting. Basses James Maddalena and David Kravitz sing an antagonistic duo that challenges the marriage of one of the romantic couples. They both start a bit soft-sung, but warm-up early into the piece and become a powerful-sounding duo with impeccable comic timing. Also notable are baritone Michael Chioldi as Belfiore and soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra as his lover, the Marchesa del Poggio. They actually clarify some of the confusion in the libretto by adding a dynamic in which Belfiore seems conflicted as to whether he wants to marry the Marchesa. It adds some much-needed explanation to why he doesn’t reveal himself aside from loyalty to his king, providing a rarity in traditionally-staged opera: a love dynamic more complex than absolute, undying affection. Shoremount-Obra is especially compelling, with a powerful presence and striking facial expressions of emotional extremes.
The production’s overall strength, despite flaws with the libretto, is a testament to the artistic team. In theater, it often seems that no matter how good artists are at their craft, it is impossible to overcome a poor script. Perhaps that’s simply not the case with an opera, in which the music is so much more central to the theatrical experience than the libretto. In any case, it’s still an achievement to make a trouble text work so well.
The first act of a double-bill, Pietro Mascagni’s Zanetto, tells the story of a famed, aging courtesan, Silvia, who is disaffected with the emotional vapidity of her love life. Zanetto, a young poet and wandering minstrel, played by a mezzo in a trouser-role, comes looking for the courtesan. Though Silvia and Zanetto share an attraction, the courtesan sends the boy away, making him promise to find true love and affirming her faith in its possibility.
The “scena lirica,” as it is billed, being a single operatic scene occurring in real time, is a lush experience. Mascagni’s music wafts through the voices of the two singers like water, creating a comfortable, flowing dramatic and emotional arc that is easy on the ears. Director Daniel Gidron, who has devised a new staging of Zanetto for this production, has the singers move with flowing grace to reflect the even pulse of the music; it is almost as if they are dancing, despite not performing any specific choreography.
Adding to the lush flow of the piece’s movement and sound is Stephen Dobay’s set. The set is remarkably simple, featuring only a backdrop of a mountain scape, a low grey ledge, and a hill. And yet the coloring of the set and Christopher Ostrom’s lighting are so soothing and radiant that we’re left with an escapist feeling of being transported to a serene mountain range. Again, the singers’ graceful movements support the creation of this world of serene calm, an ideal background from which the rapturous feelings of desire in the opera can emerge.
As a two-singer work, the opera relies heavily on the dynamic between Silvia and Zanetto. Soprano Eleni Calenos and mezzo Eve Gigliotti have a palpable connection. Calenos as Silvia has a rich voice, powerful enough for opera and yet with a distinctive quality that brings out the sensitivity and weakness of her character. Gigliotti has the ever-challenging duty of a trouser role to bring out the masculinity of her character while maintaining the quality of a woman’s voice. She gives a precise expression of gender, using a grounded, firm physicality, and she translates her natural femininity into a youthful energy that we accept as boyish. Amanda Mujica’s costume design supports the gender specificity while reflecting the ideal colors of the set. The singers express a believable heterosexual connection with their physicality and movement, bringing out an experience only possible in opera, the beauty of two feminine voices expressing the beauty of heterosexual passion.
The highlight of the entire festival is Venetian composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s intermezzo, Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna). This highly realistic opera (at least by standards of opera) tells the story of a Count who knows his wife has a secret from him. He thinks Susanna has been unfaithful, but, in actuality, she has secretly been smoking. The farcical antics of a comedy of love and misunderstanding ensue among the couple and their mute servant.
The naturalism of the opera’s set is immediately jarring. Opera companies seem to produce work with partially symbolic sets, often with wide, open spaces. As the curtain rises to reveal the scene, Dobay’s set, an intricately decorated European living room, appears more like something for a straight drama than for an opera. As with the other two operas, the set’s color scheme is eye-catching and goes well with the costumes, especially with Susanna’s striking period pink dress.
The set supports a more acutely dramatic experience. Susanna relies more heavily on its libretto for humorous impact than many comic operas. And Enrico Golisciani’s libretto is hysterical. When the Count confronts his wife about what he thinks is infidelity, Susanna has lines such as, “Can’t you be like other husbands, and wink at my secret failing?” While Un giorno di regno relies on situation and performance to bring out its humor, Susanna lets the text’s hilarity speak for itself in a realistic presentation.
Not to say that the music doesn’t help too. Wolf-Ferrari’s score switches between brisk phrases that almost sound like recitative for the more conflict-filled scenes and slow, flowing melodies for moments when the characters express the intensity of their love. The most delightful moments in the opera are when Susanna smokes, and Wolf-Ferrari gives her a glorifying motif in that style to express her deep love for smoking. Added to soprano Inna Dukach’s physicality as Susanna, with her passionate, full-body love for the cigarette, the smoking moments are somehow hilariously ironic and genuinely emotional at once.
And that’s also exactly what’s so powerful and funny about the performances of Dukach and bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter as the Count. They are emotionally genuine enough to connect as an adorable husband and wife deeply in love, and then switch into comedy mode as they attack one another. This is all with the added challenge of maintaining operatic vocal power while taking a realistic approach to their performances. Il segreto di Susanna feels like a straight play where the characters happen to communicate by singing opera. We get an intimate, domestic comedy of manners and a soaring opera at the same time in a unique theatrical experience.
The festival feels like Odyssey Opera making a kind of grand entrance, a demonstration of the possibilities of what we can experience from rarely-seen opera. If this festival is at all representative of what the company can bring to Boston in the future, they may well be a fine replacement for Opera Boston. I can’t wait to see what they have for us next!
Next is a staged concert of Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, the Boston premiere of a once wildly popular opera, tragically forgotten after being banned by the Nazi regime. The concert will be one-night-only, Saturday, September 13, at 7:30 PM, in Jordan Hall. For tickets, visit tix.com or call 617.585.1260.