Fresh from giving the neighborhood trick or treaters a halloween that will, hopefully, haunt their dreams for the remainder of the year, we ventured to Boston this past weekend for our first visit to Odyssey Opera. The young company, already causing stirs with its bold and daring choice of repertoire, devotes its seventh season to the exploration of the Tudor dynasty in opera, and ushers in November with (of this we are fairly certain) the American premiere of Giovanni Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra. Like Mercadante, Spontini, and (quite unfairly) Meyerbeer, references to Giovanni Pacini are often a footnote when discussing his more famous contemporaries such as Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. Kept alive nowadays only by the unusual revival of his opera Saffo, it may come as a surprise to most that Pacini wrote over 80 operas, many of which served as vehicles for the famous opera stars of the era. A complete unknown today, he was once as established as any of the illustrious Italian composers who dominate the standard repertoire offered by opera companies around the world to this day. Odyssey Opera’s presentation of Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra gave its audience the rare opportunity to judge the composer’s merits in the flesh, and despite the opening night’s warm reception, it is clear that Pacini’s musical language falls in an awkward musico dramatico crack of history. His musical language is more phlegmatic than Donizetti’s, certainly less melodic than Bellini’s, and lacks that dramatic swagger that sets Verdi apart from the lot. That said, his orchestral voice is elegant and empowered, pointing north of the Alps, and prepares musical Italy for the later works of Verdi. More importantly, his fellow composers were influenced, even in reactionary fashion, to the work of this seasoned and talented musician, thus even the casual awareness of his musical language becomes a valuable asset in understanding the great masterpieces of his day.
Having opened its doors to the public in 2013, the Odyssey Opera company is led by Gil Rose, who serves as both Artistic and General Director, as well as conductor. This being our first visit, the inescapable feeling of trepidation washed over us as we took our seats in the tiny, yet lovely Huntington Avenue Theater. More often than not, variables such as “young companies, unfamiliar repertoire, and ambitious seasons” can lead to disappointment (or worse), and those familiar with this blog will recall that we have experienced things that have caused us fright. We are thrilled to report our general fears as unfounded. Under maestro Rose’s baton, the forces of the Odyssey Opera Orchestra certainly perform like they’re being led by the person who signs the checks. Throughout the night, the orchestra offered a thoroughly professional reading of the rare score, their work often distinguished by clarity and tidy efficiency. The work of the Odyssey Opera Chorus was also refreshingly polished and well rehearsed, its members negotiating their complicated opening sequences with a confidence not often found in more established companies. The visual elements took us to a less defined place, the production values predictably on the experimental side, but surprisingly effective. Scenic designer Jeffrey Allen Petersen’s main set piece is cleverly comprised of suspended wooden shipping pallets which, aided by the inspired and expressive lighting design of Jorge Arroyo, indicated walls, palace hallways, and prison cells. Brooke Stanton’s costumes raised the eyebrow, an eclectic hodge podge which hardly attempted to denote the period, but rather indicated roles of established authority and foreign uncertainty in a broader way. Though the very catholic Mary Tudor would offer more pointed comments in regards to the lead’s ensemble, the costumer design choices were decidedly unoffensive. Managing the action onstage, director Steve Maler did an admirable job in the thankless task of establishing the often awkward relationships of this rather contrived plot (the libretto ranks as one of the opera’s main weaknesses,) though he could have provided greater guidance to his leading lady.
As with most serious bel canto works based on royal subjects, Pacini’s opera is fully dependent on the strength of its female lead. This theory was tested (and confirmed) at the opera’s first attempted modern revival by the Opera Rara company in 1983, where the very capable Nelly Miricioiu failed to make a compelling case for the opera’s reinsertion into the international repertoire. For these performances, Opera Odyssey offers soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra in the title role, and she fills in several of the vocal gaps left unaccounted for by the famous Opera Rara star. An artist unknown to your friends at newoutpost until now, Ms. Shoremount-Obra’s instrument exhibits many of the qualities associated with a voce di prima donna, and we’re curious to follow her development. Her soprano is an ample, amber colored instrument, with a hint of exotic eastern European glamour, which her mistress wields steadily up the staff into the fortissimo with remarkable steadiness and unobstructed purity of tone. These qualities, along with a fine moulding of her testing aria di sortita “In quel volto accolse il cielo,” earned her enough audience validation to confidently command the stage for the rest of the affair. Along the way, there were some caveats.
In her portrayal of an English queen, her acting fell short of portraying a ruler of credible royal bearing. Some demerits were also vocal. Her diction can be unclear, and while her vocal placement through complicated passages is well accomplished, the expressive opportunities on the page are often left unaddressed. The lower tessitura, while well achieved, is decidedly a lesser feature than the rest of her glowing instrument, and it must be further developed with care to dutifully portray the dragon ladies that comprise this legendary repertoire. Her already accomplished florid singing, a requirement in this repertoire, could be bettered by encouraging a greater edge in her singing, a more judicious pacing of her breathing method (she was occasionally assisted by maestro Rose to get through some phrasings), and by the addition of that elusive trick, a true trill. Minutia aside, this was a triumphant event in Ms. Shoremount-Obra’s career and we promise to keep an eye for her future performances to assess her development. On this one hearing only, we dare proclaim her a singer of great promise.
Ms. Shoremount-Obra’s achievement was all but matched by soprano Alisa Jordheim in the seconda donna role of Clotilde Talbot. Hers is a more straight-forward, high lying soprano, and she compensated for a cool, non-italianate timbre by way of a well-nourished instrument, developed in all three registers, and held together by a gritty core. Though her instrument is of the leggiero brand, it is by no means small, and she commanded the ensemble and noisy concertati with an easy and incisive edge. While both she and Ms. Shoremount-Obra provide a vague indication of a true trill, Ms. Jordheim’s offering was the one we accepted as a fair stab at one. In terms of the bel canto style and manner of phrasing, she sang very well, and matched her elegant and endearing warblings with a stage bearing worthy of her part, for despite her short stature, she commanded the stage at her every entrance. Alongside our leading lady, we hope to assess Ms. Jordheim’s development in future performances.
We cannot claim the same sort of enthusiasm for the work of tenor Kameron Lopreore in the role of Riccardo Fenimoore. The part was written for Nicola Ivanoff, a tenor with an extraordinary high register often championed by Rossini, and who was regarded as the next best alternative to the more famous Giovanni Rubini. Rossini’s faith in the Russian tenor was so that he used his influence to advance his career, and convinced even the young Giuseppe Verdi to write alternate tenor showpieces for Ivanoff in Attila, and that early masterpiece, Ernani. Like Rubini, these scores indicate that Ivanoff must have been at home sustaining a credible romantic tenor at an extraordinary high tessitura. As heard on opening night, Mr. Lopreore’s instrument was unable to recreate anything of the sort, and throughout the evening the score relentlessly called out two crippling shortcomings: Disconnected and undeveloped registers and an unsteady emission in long high lying passages. It was a shame, because judging by his stage deportment, Mr. Lopreore is an engaged artist who clearly wants to do right by the score. Alas, under the conditions listed not much could be done, and his efforts were summed up by the polite applause that greeted Fenimoore’s third act three grand scena “M’amo qual aman gli angeli”.
The lower voices represented the menfolk in a better light, starting with the broadly painted Gualtiero Churchill of baritone James Demler. The seasoned baritone’s role is small but pivotal, and has the privilege of gracing the opera’s elegant introductory scene with a delightful exchange with the chorus. Mr. Demler’s steady and burnished baritone did well by the part, and by way of an understated stage alchemy conquered the near impossible challenge to look both menacing and stately in the odd choice of costume chosen by those in charge. He shared baritone duties with Leroy Davis, who portrayed the benevolent and magnanimous Ernesto Malcolm. His is a more curious case in that his baritone sits high and is not yet fully developed, but is carefully projected and heard throughout the auditorium nonetheless. At this point, the ear hears more technique than voice, but of what could be discerned, in terms of color and emission, there are many things to look forward to if all the cards were to fall in the right place. Mr. Davis is still a developing talent, with care and hard work he may one day make a case for himself as an exponent to the great roles for his fach. The smaller parts were competently handled by mezzo-soprano Katherine Maysek as the page and Craig Juricka as Raoul.
Odyssey Opera continues its survey of the Tudor dynasty with the world premiere performance of Arnold Rossner’s The Chronicle of Nine: The Tragedy of Queen Jane. For more information, please visit the company’s website at: https://www.odysseyopera.org