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Odyssey Opera Presents Wagner

International Cast Sings with Style and Vocal Allure

By: David Bonetti - 09/18/2013

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Odyssey Opera Artistic and General Director Gil Rose conducts orchestra and chorus in Wagner's "Rienzi" at Jordan Hall.
Odyssey Opera Artistic and General Director Gil Rose conducts orchestra and chorus in Wagner's "Rienzi" at Jordan Hall.
Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos sang Irene, Rienzi's sister.
Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos sang Irene, Rienzi's sister.
Lithuanian tenor Michael Benedikt was Rienzi.
Lithuanian tenor Michael Benedikt was Rienzi.

Rienzi: der Letze der Tribunen (Rienzi: The Last of the Roman Tribunes)
Music and text by Richard Wagner, based on the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
First performed in Dresden in 1842
Odyssey Opera
A Concert Performance
Jordan Hall of the New England Conservatory
Sunday, Sept. 15
Odyssey Opera Orchestra and Chorus with the Lorelei Ensemble
Conductor: Gil Rose
Chorus Master: Harris Ipock
Cast: Kristian Benedikt (Rienzi), Elisabete Matos (Irene), Margaret Jane Wray (Adriano), Kristopher Irmiter (Kardinal Orvieto), David Kravitz (Paolo Orsini), Stephan Salters (Steffano Colonna), Ethan Bremner (Baroncelli), Robert Honeysucker (Cecco del Vecchio), Messenger of Peace (Christina English), Frank Kelley (Herald)

Where it mattered most, Odyssey Opera delivered. Musically, the fledgling company set a high standard, assembling an extraordinary cast of international Wagner singers, augmented by a few equally adept locals. Its enormous orchestra, which overflowed an extended Jordan Hall stage into the balconies, and equally enormous chorus played and sang with inspiration.

If that were all opera required, the new company, underwritten by controversial opera supporter Randolph J. Fuller, would seem to promise great things for the frequently famished local opera audience.

Alas, musical values might be primary, but they are not all that opera requires. Opera is a dramatic as well as a musical art, and it has a visual component as well. Wagner, above all, knew that: His life’s goal as an artist was to create a gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork that would seamlessly meld music, poetry, drama and visual spectacle. A concert version of one of his works? Of any opera? He wouldn’t understand.

I suppose we should be grateful for what we got. The performance was hugely ambitious for a new company rising out of the ashes of one put down last year by its major underwriter. And as I mentioned, it was musically accomplished, better than one might have expected. “Rienzi” makes enormous demands on an opera company, which is one of the reasons it is seldom done these days even by big outfits like those in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. And, as far as anyone can tell, it had never been presented before in Boston, so it fulfilled the new company’s goal to produce rare and unusual works never seen here or else done so long ago that no one remembers.

And it is understandable that a new company dependent on the generosity of one donor – Fuller is the only financial supported listed in the program – might decide to go for a big effect without going broke in the process. But does one achieve the big effect desired by doing it by half measures? I think not.

Concert operas are the lazy way out in Boston. Companies use the excuse that there is no real opera house here to line up a group of singers on the lip of the stage in front of an orchestra and call it an opera. They can call it that, but that doesn’t make it one. Opera is music and drama, and a line of singers standing at attention does not a drama make. In the matter of opera performance, Boston remains a provincial backwater.

Trying to make a concert opera of a mid-19th century grand opera like “Rienzi” is particularly foolhardy. At the end of the nearly five-hour long work – not counting the two-hour dinner break between Act II and Act III - the Roman Capitol is set aflame, taking Rienzi, the last Roman Tribune, his sister Irene and Adriano, the young man who loves her - who had just ridden on stage on a white horse - to their deaths. Before that, there had been riots in the streets, murders of Roman nobles, military marches and processions, not to mention an extended ballet that retold the story of Lucretia and Tarquinius. All would have to be imagined by the members of the audience, however, since there was no visual or dramatic evidence on the stage.

Sorry, that is too much to ask. Grand opera of the type Giacomo Meyerbeer established at the Paris Opera, which was Wagner’s model, depends on spectacle. It might have been better for Odyssey to put on a concert with excerpts from Wagner’s early works or to save its money until there was enough to do it properly. You don’t inaugurate a new opera company with a concert version of an operatic rarity. It does not augur well for the future.

More troubling was the performance’s poor attendance, which suggests that this new company is unlikely to thrive. (I hope I’m wrong.) Jordan Hall seats only a little over a thousand. For the single performance of “Rienzi,” it was only a little more than half full. Explanations abound: the tired complaint that opera has a tough time in this Puritan town (although ballet seems to thrive); the antipathy many feel toward Wagner, the composer and the man; the fact that the company was new and hadn’t had enough time to build an audience; even that the season doesn’t begin until the BSO plays its first concert, which would occur a week later.

I suspect the fact that the company is the creation of a man who had killed a plucky, well-respected company less than two years ago, had fired the head of a small company he took over a decade before that and had left the Boston Lyric Opera with bad feelings before that might have had much to do with it. It’s hard to birth a new opera company in a town with a small opera audience when you’re carrying so much baggage.

Still, with all its limitations, the concert, conducted by Gil Rose, Odessey Opera’s artistic and general director, was of such high musical quality that I hope the company builds an audience for future productions, which it promises will be staged, and survives for many years to come.

The opera itself is of a romantic genre we find dated today. Based on a potboiler by British popular novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton - he of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame - it is a melodrama dressed in the garb of a historical epic. The character Rienzi is based on the historical figure Cola di Rienzi, a 14th century Roman who had the crazy idea of restoring a chaotic city to the greatness of the days of the old Roman republic. In the fictionalized account, he rallies the people, facing the opposition of the entrenched nobility. He grows megalomaniacal, and meets a fiery fate in the Capitol building he sought to renew.

A romantic story humanizes the action. At the opera’s start, Rienzi’s sister Irene is being abducted by Paolo Orsini, one of the nobles. He is thwarted by Adriano Colonna, son of another noble family, who is in love with her. Over the next four hours, Adriano is torn between his family and his love of Irene. In the end, he dies with his beloved along with her by-then deluded brother.

“Rienzi” was Wagner’s first hit, and it shows still developing his distinctive form of music-drama – there are still arias and other forms that stand apart from orchestral passages. He later disavowed the work, calling it “too Italianate,” which might actually make it more appealing to those who hate his later works.

Wagner chose to set the novel to music because of its nationalistic subtext. It was a time when Germany and Italy, the two fragmented lands in the heart of Europe, were both attempting to throw off the yokes of foreign rule and unite into modern nation states. The story of Rienzi di Cola provided an allegory for that struggle. The story had resonance years later, when a young Adolf Hitler saw the opera and was entranced – he wrote that he saw it 40 times – by the political possibilities it offered him. If Cola di Rienzi sought to overthrow a decadent and corrupt regime and restore Rome to glory, why couldn’t the frustrated Munich painter do the same for Germany?  (He seemed to have failed to notice Rienzi’s fiery failure.)

The overture is the opera’s most often aspect heard excerpt today. Opening with trumpets punctuating lovely music painting the dawn of a new day, it includes the melody from the famous Act V prayer, which so suggests Wagner’s mature music, and ends with the blaring brass of a military band. Rose conducted the sometimes ragged pick-up orchestra with vigor and understanding from the start. As in Wagner’s mature work, the orchestral writing is never of secondary interest, but primary in the structuring and emotional intensity of the entire work.

The trio of principal soloists was well balanced and of a quality seldom encountered on the Boston opera stage in music written after Mozart.

As Rienzi, the Lithuanian dramatic tenor Michael Benedikt sang as a true heldentenor (heroic tenor) – his voice strong, noble, declamatory, but capable of melting lyricism. He sang with great expressivity and close attention to the text. He also couldn’t hide that he was suffering from a head cold. One can only imagine how he might have sounded if he were well. At his greatest moment, the Act V prayer, “Allmächt’g Vater, blick’ herab!” (Almighty Father, look at me/Hear me humbly pleading with you), in which he prays to God to give him strength to unite Rome and complete his grand plans, Benedikt sang with great tonal beauty and dramatic commitment. The aria prefigures the mystical-erotic nature of Wagner’s music to come, bringing us into the sound world of “Lohengrin” and “Tristan und Isolde.”  Benedikt was able to suggest through his sensitivity to the text that Rienzi’s invocation of God was based in delusion, that he knew that the fulfillment of his dreams was futile.

As Irene, Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos had such a big voice that she threatened to tear the roof off the house as well as tear a hole in my eardrum. Someone failed to tell her that she was singing in a thousand-seat music hall rather than the 3,800 seat Met, but she should have been able to tell that herself. Matos was able to soar above the huge orchestra effortlessly, which was thrilling the couple of times she got to demonstrate her chops. Still, she sang with luscious, if steely, tone, and she was committed to the part. Both she and Benedikt had sung the roles earlier this year at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, so the score was fresh to them – and it showed.        

The real vocal star of the evening was American mezzo-soprano Margaret Jane Wray, who sang the trouser role of Adriano. She sang with fullness throughout all vocal registers, had sweet if powerful high notes and possessed earthy low tones reminiscent of the great Marilyn Horne. Wray had her greatest of many great moments in the Act III aria in which Adriano seeks reconciliation between his family and that of his beloved Irene, which she sang with Italianate, almost Rossinian lyricism. The effect was thrilling, sending shivers through up my spine. This will certainly rank as one of the great moments of vocal art in a new season.

As the nobles Paolo Orsini and Steffano Colonna, Boston baritones David Kravitz and Stephen Salters sang powerfully and idiomatically. In smaller roles, Boston singers Ethan Bremner and Robert Honeysucker as Baroncelli and Cecco del Vecchio, allies of Rienzi, were fine, as was Kristopher Irmiter as Kardinal Orvieto. 

A special shout-out to the chorus led by Harris Ipock and the orchestral brass. Together, they played an important part in the success of the performance.

All in all, it was a very satisfying afternoon and evening musically, even as it left you wanting to see it staged.

One final word: Three of the Boston singers, Kravitz, Bremner and Honeysucker, dressed as if they were going to work in the accounting office on a casual Friday rather than to perform an opera in the important debut of a new opera company. For four hours one had to look at them in their cheap suits and unpolished shoes (the latter would be Bremner). Boys, remember, you are on a stage and everyone in the audience has to look at you. Do us a favor: buy a good, stylish black or charcoal gray suit, an appropriate shirt and a nice tie. You can deduct it as a professional expense. Maybe you can hit up Randy for a donation. 

Reader Comments
From "Annoyed"
09-24-2013, 10:03 am
Interesting that you find it appropriate to comment on the clothing of the Boston singers more than you do their performances. If I (or anyone else reading this website) cared about your rude and unnecessary fashion "advice" I'd ask you to start a blog detailing your opinions on performance wear. Stick to the music as that's what your readers actually care about.
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