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Student Opera Offers Deep Satisfactions

Boston's Opera Stars of Tomorrow

By: David Bonetti - 03/01/2014

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Sophie-Nouchka Wemel as the Vixen and Katie Abraham as the Fox express their love in Boston Conservatory's "Cunning Little Vixen"
Sophie-Nouchka Wemel as the Vixen and Katie Abraham as the Fox express their love in Boston Conservatory's "Cunning Little Vixen"
Yujin Kim as Poppea and James Dorner as the Emperor Nero in Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea" at the New England Conservatory
Yujin Kim as Poppea and James Dorner as the Emperor Nero in Monteverdi's "L'incoronazione di Poppea" at the New England Conservatory
A view from the balcony of Boston University's "Florencia en el Amazonas"
A view from the balcony of Boston University's "Florencia en el Amazonas"
Florencia Grimaldi surrounded by silent figures dressed as her Puccini roles with Riolobo, the spirit of the river, to her left in "Florencia en el Amazonas"
Florencia Grimaldi surrounded by silent figures dressed as her Puccini roles with Riolobo, the spirit of the river, to her left in "Florencia en el Amazonas"
Riolobo, the spirit of the Amazon, in Boston University's "Florencia en el Amazonas"
Riolobo, the spirit of the Amazon, in Boston University's "Florencia en el Amazonas"
Opera diva Florencia Grimaldi with her amanuensis Rosalba in "Florencia en el Amazonas" at the Boston University Theatre
Opera diva Florencia Grimaldi with her amanuensis Rosalba in "Florencia en el Amazonas" at the Boston University Theatre

“The Cunning Little Vixen”
Music and libretto by Leos Janácek
Reduced orchestration by Jonathan Dove
Boston Conservatory
Boston Conservatory Theater
Nov. 21 to 24, 2013

L’incoronazione di Poppea
Music by Claudio Monteverdi
Libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello
New England Conservatory
Cutler Majestic Theatre
Feb. 8 to 11, 2014

Florencia en el Amazonas
Music by Daniel Catán
Libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain
Boston University
School of Music Opera Institute and School of Theatre
Boston University Theatre
Feb. 20 to 23, 2014

It doesn’t really matter whether you like the performances in a student production of an opera. Conservatories and music schools don’t mount expensive opera productions for you, the audience member. They do so primarily to give students important on-stage experience, to help transform them into professional performers, adept at singing while acting and moving across a stage, often wearing uncomfortable costumes.  On the other hand, it does matter if you enjoy a student performance and the production mounted to showcase them, because that’s a sign that the school’s opera program is working, that the student singer is ready to move on to the professional opera companies they’re being trained for.

To that end, Boston’s two conservatories and Boston University’s Opera Institute mount a number of fully staged operas every year. Operas by Mozart and Benjamin Britten dominate for obvious reasons: Learning to sing Mozart is crucial to mastering the repertory and Britten’s operas are in English, so learning to sing in a foreign language is a deferred task.

But the local conservatories do branch out from time to time – all Mozart and Britten can get a little dull for both students and the outside audiences the productions attract. And the fact that they do so is important for Boston audiences, who get to see few fully staged productions by professional companies. (Tragically, the city is down to just one small company, Boston Lyric Opera, which mounts only four productions a year.) You can understand why so many locals pay good money to attend live transmissions from the Met, which satisfies at a certain level but is not the same as attending live opera. 

Often student performances are frustratingly uneven with various degrees of accomplishment on display, but sometimes they come together with well-balanced casts, offering the experience of professional opera at a quarter the price. And a bonus is that the faculty directors and set, costume and lighting designers are for the most part professional, often operating at a high standard. Indeed, in terms of production values, the three operas I will discuss were all superior to what out local professional company tends to put on.

What I found exciting about the three productions I recently attended (and there were others I missed) was the range of work presented. You would be lucky to encounter them even in major opera centers. We see Monteverdi’s “Poppea” here fairly regularly because this is an early music town. Elsewhere in the country, however, it is not so often encountered. Janácek’s “Cunning Little Vixen” is a real rarity – I saw it once before at the New York City Opera in a famous production with sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak, but I doubt if many in the Boston Conservatory audience had that experience. And I’d never seen Catán’s 1996 opera, which has been seldom produced on the East coast.

These three operas represent an amazing range of music theater – “Poppea,” the earliest opera that has entered the repertory, “Vixen,” a deeply humanistic modernist work that deserves to be seen and heard more often, and “Florencia,” an opera from the last decade of the 20th century that demonstrates that “the exotic and irrational entertainment” that is opera - those are Dr. Johnson’s words - still has some life in it.

Janácek’s 1924 opera was based on a newspaper comic strip about a vixen who crosses back and forth between the natural and human worlds. It belongs to the eastern European tradition of fairy tale or supernatural opera perhaps best known in the west by “Rusalka,” composed by Antonín Dvorák, Janácek’s Czech compatriot of the previous generation. Although such works have a hard time finding audiences outside their lands of origin, “Rusalka” is currently a vehicle for Renée Fleming at the Met and elsewhere. (I heard her sing it in San Francisco more than 15 years ago.)

Although “Rusalka” has its charms, Janácek’s masterpiece is of an entirely different order. A profound work about the cycles of life and the interconnectedness of all creatures, it had been thought to be unstageable because of the constant interaction between humans and animals until Walter Felsenstein showed in the mid-1950s at his famous theater in East Berlin that it could make sense dramatically. In this country, the most successful staging of the work was at the New York City opera in a production by Frank Corsaro with sets and costumes by Maurice Sendak, justly famous for his children’s books. The pairing of Sendak and Janácek sounds inspired, and many felt it to be, but I found the results too cute, leaving me emotionally unprepared for the death of the vixen in the third act. (Maybe I wasn’t paying adequate attention.)

That was not a problem in the Boston Conservatory’s excellent production, a marvel seamlessly mixing naturalism and artifice. Much of the success goes to stage director Johnathon Pape, Boston Conservatory’s director of opera studies. After remounting the Corsaro/Sendak production in New York, he spent a year in the Czech Republic where he says he came to love Czech opera. Pape brought love and knowledge to the task of bringing “Vixen” to the stage here, and one can only imagine that the students he trained to sing idiomatically in Czech and act convincingly not only as peasants but as chickens, badgers, frogs, dogs and foxes will long benefit from the experience. One hopes that he mounts more Czech opera in coming years, and if he finds a soprano who can sing the ravishing “Song of the Moon,” perhaps he’ll even take on “Rusalka.”

From the opening chords of the reduced orchestra, conducted sensitively by Andrew Altenbach, you were brought into a natural world in which life and death coexist. As the forest animals teem, a Forester heading home comes across a baby vixen that he takes home as a pet, leading to complications with his wife and his horny dog. The vixen turns out to be a political organizer and tries to get the chickens, a group of clucking students in hilarious costumes, to rise up and overthrow the rooster. When they refuse, she kills them all. The Forester’s wife tries to shoot her, and she scampers away into the forest.

There’s a subplot involving the Forester, the village publican, the pastor and the schoolteacher, who shyly feels affection for the barmaid. Love is on the mind of the vixen as well, who mates with a fox and gives birth to a litter of fox cubs. Years pass, with more litters every season; the vixen reappears in the life of the forest dwellers, and a poacher shoots and kills her. Life goes on. The barmaid marries the poacher, wearing a new fox fur muff, news of the reassigned pastor is passed on, the Forester admits he is growing older and as he walks home through the forest, is overcome by the beauty of nature and its endless cycles, singing a ravishing aria about the wonders around him.

If done right, as it was here, you are overwhelmed by the sublimity of the music and the story. At the end of the performance I felt the awe that Janácek must have intended his audience to feel. The large student cast was excellent as singers and as actors. The contingent of children from Boston City Singers who performed as fox cubs and other animals were adorable and disciplined actors. Student choreographers Allie Gee and Amanda Shaw deserve special credit for keeping the cast moving in manners appropriate to their species. The afternoon I attended (there were two casts), David Brian Clark was superb as the Forester, more than ready to take the role to the big-time. And a special shout-out goes to Sophie-Nouchka Wemel, who as the vixen sang with a silvery tone and acted as if she grew up in a central European forest. She gave one of the best performances I’ve heard all year.

“l’incoronazione di Poppea” (The Coronation of Poppea), first performed in Venice in 1642, is the first great opera in the repertory. The last work by the great Claudio Monteverdi, who in his long career moved from church-sponsored polyphony to single-voiced modern music, which allowed for the development of opera, it is surprisingly sophisticated, telling a complex story of lust, power and corruption in a constantly morphing series of set pieces: arias, duets, ensembles, madrigals and orchestral passages. It recounts the story of history’s favorite Roman degenerate, the Emperor Nero, and his crazy love for the ambitious strumpet Poppea. In the course of the work, Nero condemns his advisor, the philosopher Seneca, to his death, and banishes his wife Octavia to certain death on a barren island. Although “Poppea” brims with beautiful melodies, there are at least three scenes that rank among the masterpieces of the opera repertory: The death of Seneca with his supporters exclaiming “No, Seneca, No, Seneca, No, No, No” as he prepares to commit the suicide Nero has demanded of him; Octavia’s heartbreaking farewell to Rome, “Addio, Roma, addio patria”; and the final love duet between Nero and Poppea, “Pur ti muro” (I behold thee).

The strength of the New England Conservatory’s presentation was in its production values. The professional production team of director Steven Goldstein, set designer Richard Wadsworth Chambers and costume designer Robin McLaughlin set the story in a stylish modern corporate office. A large conference table served as a place to plot as well as Nero and Poppea’s bed. When the illicit lovers first appear, they are both in their undergarments, Nero in tight white boxers and tank top, awaking from their night of passion. Throughout the rest of the work, Nero dresses in corporate casual, ranging from jock to master of the universe - think Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Initially, Poppea is played like a teenage girl. Only in the last scene, when her way to marriage and the position of Empress has been guaranteed, does she wear the long red gown of an adult. Octavia is dressed elegantly, even chicly, like an Empress, which she is, at least for the moment. Seneca is dressed like an academic in tweeds, a bowtie and thick glasses, always carrying a stack of books. There is one scene change. The shoji screen-like grid that forms the back wall of the room where most of the action takes place rises to create a gray empty space for Seneca’s library, in which his three acolytes sit and read. 

The attempt to link the decadence of the Roman court with the misbehavior of our one percent is a cliché at this point, but at least it was well and stylishly done.

The problem of the evening rest with the performers, few of whom were adept at Baroque styling or even able to move smoothly across the stage. In their opening duet, which is one of the most erotic in opera history, James Dorner as Nero and Yujin Kim as Poppea showed no chemistry for each other and awkwardly interacted. Throughout the lengthy work, during which he is on stage much of the time, Dorner, an attractive young man who could have played the stud, never loosened up. Kim became more kittenish as the opera went on, by the end showing us through her acting why Nero would send his wife off to almost certain death so he could marry her. The role of Poppea’s nurse Arnalta is frequently cast with a man and played for laughs. (Baroque operas abound in cross dressers and loves campy drag queens.) Here, however, Arnalta was cast with a woman who neither sang well nor took advantage of the comedy inherent in the role, playing Arnalta like a busybody. That casting wasn’t because of prudery. In a purely directorial decision, Nero’s friend Lucano tries to turn a massage sexual, but after locking lips, Nero flees. The decadent historical Nero might have initiated such an encounter, so it’s too bad, since the directors opened the door, his bisexuality wasn’t played up more.

If the acting was lacking, the singing was even more disappointing.

The only stylish singing was by Josh Quin, who as Seneca displayed a deep and resonant baritone and comfort with Baroque style ornamentation, and David Lee and Junhan Choi as Liberto and Littore, the pair of Nero’s guards. The latter were small roles, but one wished they were longer. The one scene that worked dramatically and musically was the scene of Seneca’s suicide. (After he has committed suicide, gold leaves slowly filter down from the eaves, a beautiful directorial touch.)

As Nero, Dorner had a nice tenor voice, but he was unsure with his ornamentations, laboriously attempting to create the distinctive Monteverdean trill. As Poppea, soprano Kim was better, but lacked the fire required for a great Poppea. Particularly badly cast was Sadie Gregg as Octavia. Her lament can be one of the moving arias in all opera; here, standing in the aisle with her suitcase, she sort of dialed it in. Her mezzo-soprano had no vocal allure and little affinity for Baroque style. In the role of Ottone, Poppea’s one-time lover, Vincent Turregano was fine, and as Drusilla, the woman who loves him through it all, Rebekah Holland had a nice voice, which she used well. Too bad, like those of Liberto and Littore, it was such a small role.

Joseph Mechavich led the student orchestra with verve.

All in all, a real disappointment. One would think that local students would be more fluent singing Baroque music. Boston is, after all, the self-proclaimed early music capital of America.

Until his untimely death in 2011 at age 62, Daniel Catán was the great Hispanic hope of contemporary opera. A Sephardic Jew born in Mexico and educated in Great Britain and the United States (Princeton), he lived in Los Angeles. Championed by Placido Domingo, he wrote five operas, three of which have gotten international exposure. For reasons I don’t understand, his operas, which have been performed in Vienna and Paris as well as in Los Angeles, Seattle and Houston, have not found favor on the East coast. So the local premiere of his third opera, “Florencia en el Amazonas” (Florencia on the Amazon) comes with a certain excitement.

Based on Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” it seems a natural subject for adaptation for opera since the leading character, Florencia Grimaldi, is an opera singer, one of the great divas of her time.

The opera opens with Florencia taking a bow in Milan’s La Scala, after performing Puccini’s “Tosca,” the ultimate vehicle for a diva. A spectral fan presents her with a bouquet of white roses hidden within which is a tropical flower from her homeland deep in the Amazonian jungle. Memories flood her mind and soon she is on a boat steaming up the Amazon to the legendary opera house in Manaus in search of her long-ago lover Cristóbal, who is said to have disappeared into the jungle on his quest for a rare butterfly. The boat is also carrying the older married couple Paula and Álvaro, who are traveling to Manaus to hear Florencia, and Rosalba, a young writer obsessed with the soprano, who is writing a book on her and is hoping to meet her in Manaus. Filling out the cast is the captain and his disgruntled nephew Arcadio. Popping in and out of the action is Riolobo, the spirit of the river, who delivered Florencia the bouquet at La Scala that set the story in action. (Remember: García Márquez was the master of magic realism and Catán adopts some of his extra-ordinary techniques.)

The passengers interact, Arcadio falls in love with Rosalba, who cares only about her book, the older couple squabble, Florencia sings an aria in which she says that the passion taught her by Cristóbal allowed her to sing, Riolobo keeps the action going, and there is a storm that grounds the boat, causing all the characters to fall to the deck. The second act plays out as if in a dream. The squabbling couple reconciles, Rosalba acknowledged her love for Arcadio and Florencia is reunited with Cristóbal, but in the form of his sought-after butterfly. 

Nic Muni directed this sophisticated production for the Boston University Opera Institute. From the opening scene showing Florencia, through a scrim, bowing to her ecstatic La Scala audience, her back to the B.U. Theatre audience, the rings of La Scala projected on the rear wall of the theater, you knew you were in for a well-conceived production. Florencia keeps on her Tosca gown until the final scenes and in a smart directorial touch, realized by costume designer Kathryn Schondek, she is accompanied on stage throughout by the other Puccini characters she has played, all dressed in ghostly white: Mimi, Cio-cio san, Minnie, Turandot, Manon Lescaut and Suor Angelica. 

Set designer and lighting director collaborated to create moody scenes evocative of the jungle. And William Lumpkin plushly conducted the largish student orchestra.

The big question and failure of the production was why there was no attempt to show Florencia turn into a butterfly as she embraces her long-lost lover.

The advance word on Catán as a composer is that his favored style was ultra-traditionalist, derivative of the great late-romantic opera composers Puccini and Strauss. That turned out to be true; in this case he leaned more toward Puccini, the composer who provided his diva with her greatest triumphs. His reactionary approach would ordinarily elicit nothing but complaints from me, but his skill in using the musical ideas of the past for his own purposes was so persuasive that I was swept away into his musical world, and any doubts about his derivative practice fell away as I journeyed down the Amazon with his cast of singers. In addition, his appropriation of Puccinian melody and orchestration was accompanied by other, more current influences. The robotic orchestral passagework of Philip Glass and the tropical romanticism of 20th century Latin American composers like Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas were also evident. Catán showed that late romanticism could still be a viable style even a hundred years after its moment had passed.

The cast of student singers were mixed, but mostly good. The most challenging role was that, of course, of Florencia. Kelley Hollis, who was outstanding in B.U.’s production of Nico Muhly’s “Dark Seasons” last September, was also outstanding here. It took her a while to warm up, but when she did her big voice proved capable of the role’s challenges. As an actress she tended to be stiff, something she should work on. As Riolobo, Isaac Bray, who was excellent in last year’s production of “Portrait de Manon,” was good here, but he sported an unfortunate costume and horrible make-up that didn’t allow his physical assets to shine. As Rosalba, Sara Avari was mousy, whether by direction or not I can’t say, and vocally not strong. Jorgeandres Camargo as the Captain, and Stephanie Zuluaga as Paula and Erik Van Heyningen as Álvaro were fine. The best singing of the evening came from Heejae Kim as Arcadio, who had a ringing and powerful tenor.

The production as a whole provided a delightful evening of music that was unfamiliar I am sure to most of the audience. It argues for additional productions of Catán’s other works. Let’s hope we get to hear his “Rappacini’s Daughter,” based on the Hawthorne story, and “Il Postino,” based on the Italian movie about Pablo Neruda, in coming seasons. He’s too good to be left to West coast audiences.

UPCOMING:

All three schools have student opera scheduled for spring.

The Boston Conservatory will do Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” from April 3 to 6.

B.U. will present Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the B.U. Theatre from April 17 to 20.

The New England Conservatory is doing Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus”  from April 19 to 22.

Reader Comments
From "Mark Favermann"
03-04-2014, 08:16 am
But student work, David? Why so much fuss? I guess it is a way to spend cold winter evenings in a warm environment! I hope that they served hot cocoa to the audience.
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