Who here likes Harry Potter? Dead Poets Society? This past weekend MetroWest Opera added Mozart’s The Magic Flute to this boarding school list-o-fun. According to the program note by stage director Adam McLean, this production featured the fantastical story of The Magic Flute via a 1920s boarding school. Performed in English, this production of the well-known piece pulled the opera away from its fantasy nature. The Magic Flute in and of itself is a quintessential fairy tale. There’s a prince, princess, sidekick and his love interest; deception, monkey minions, magical weapons in the form of a flute and bells, an evil queen, and good wizard. Just add a little music and comedy and BOOM you’ve got instant fantasy in the form of opera. This boarding school setting detracted from the mystical nature of the show; the concept didn’t quite fit. I found myself wondering, despite knowing the story well, why certain events were taking place and how certain characters fit into the world on the stage. What should this bold theatrical choice lend to the themes of the opera and how should it enhance my understanding of the music and story? There seemed to be a disconnect.
Women usually dominate the genre of opera; they are beautiful, bold and brightly costumed all while singing notes the likes of which could shatter glass. With that in mind, Riverside Theater Works’ presentation of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti (translated, ironically enough, to “Women are like that”) was an anomaly, because the men stole the show. As they slinked on the stage in blue and red soldier outfits with dangling rapiers at their side and pouting puppy-dog lips for their ladies, I couldn’t help but giggle at the quirky characters they embodied. One tall and lanky (Guglielmo), the other short and scrappy (Ferrando), the pair acted their way through costume changes—complete with penciled-on Spanish mustaches and red, flourishing pirate suits—and sneaky plots to comically trick two seemingly impressionable sisters into cheating on their beaus. And oh the operatic voices: Jeffrey McEvoy’s deep baritone sound resonated with spin and demanded my attention by filling the theater, and Victor Khodadad’s tenor flowed with ease and precision through the entire range of his voice. I could listen to these men sing for quite some time, so keep the opera coming sirs. Not to be outdone, Daniel Sullivan, baritone, performed Don Alfonso, the older gentleman pulling the strings to this farcical story. Sullivan not only stunned with his brilliant baritone voice, but he also portrayed the perfect manipulative wealthy man eager to take advantage of the enthusiasm of youth.
Now, for those of you who don’t know the opera—and in saying that I really mean if you don’t know it go learn it (it’s one of Mozart’s big four!)—here’s a quick recap: two betrothed men Ferrando and Guglielmo make a bet with Don Alfonso that their women will always be faithful. The two men leave for “war” and instead disguise themselves and attempt to woo each other’s lovers. Don Alfonso elicits help from the two ladies’ clever maid Despina to ensure that he wins the bet. In the end, both women succumb to their wooers thus making Don Alfonso triumphant. The couples decide to accept each other as they are—for, of course, “all women are like that”—and return to their original lovers. Don Alfonso provides Despina with a large tip for all her efforts, and the story closes with a happy ending.
Soprano Stephanie Mann played Fiordiligi, the older sister, and mezzo-soprano Christina English performed Dorabella, the younger sister. In terms of appearance, I was not a big fan of the makeup Mann wore. The color of her lipstick gave her a deathly pallor with dark bluish lips that made me think of a cadaver; I would have preferred a brighter red like that of her cohort English. In terms of voices, English impressed me with her controlled coloratura, while Mann struck me as shrill. As a side note, English had great chemistry with baritone McEvoy in the duet Il core vi dono (I give you my heart). I found myself yearning for those two actors to unite in the end despite the well-known conclusion to the opera. Soprano Erin Pedersen played a sprightly Despina who cunningly encourages much of the mischief in the story. Pedersen’s voice struck me as beautiful and, in comparison to the rest of the cast, quite light. Her high notes floated with ease, and she entertained me with her stealthy upstage crosses while in disguise.
The spectacular 18th century, period costumes by Jeanne McPartland Keenan and Susan Dudley Wigglesworth greatly contributed to the success of the show. The stage direction by Josiah George, on the other hand, left me unfulfilled. One of my biggest pet-peeves of opera is when a company parks and barks; this is stage speak for standing in one place and delivering the singing without blocking or movement. In this case, there were several ensemble moments that unfortunately showcased the park and bark technique. That being said, the comedic sections came off smashingly, and I often found myself chuckling alongside the rest of the audience…so kudos there.
While the Riverside Theater Works is located in Hyde Park, a location this car-less reviewer had trouble accessing, the space has much to offer. Arranged with little tables and inexpensive refreshments to boot, the visibility and sound of the venue is spectacular. An audience member can sit anywhere in the space and enjoy not only a little wine—allowed in the theater space—but also full, visible facial expressions from the performers. My one complaint about the space is that the lights seem too few to truly brighten the stage. Regardless, I’m counting this performance as a success for Riverside.
Erin Huelskamp is a Boston based composer and stage director
The New England Conservatory’s chamber music series ‘First Monday’ opened this week for its 25th season with an excellent concert of Gabrieli, Bach, and Mozart. Started in 1985 by NEC then president and cellist Laurence Lesser (younger at left), First Monday programs six free chamber concerts with wonderfully eclectic programs and distinguished NEC faculty and alumni players throughout the season.
The staging of Monday’s first piece worked to turn Jordan Hall into Venice’s Saint Mark’s Basilica; switching off the stage lights and placing four brass players on each side of the balcony. The hall was lit only by additional lights placed in front of the musicians’ music stands, their light reflecting off the brass of the instruments into the hall below. With Jordan’s massive organ, the hall became nothing less than a cathedral to music, reverberating with Giovanni Gabrieli‘s Canzon septimi toni No. 2 and Canzon primi toni. Gabrieli was house organist and composer at Saint Mark’s in the late 16th century, famous for his antiphonal music, where the choir or instrumentation is split into halves. The stationing of the brass players (featuring trumpeter Bruce Hall, principal of the Pops Esplanade, Boston Ballet, Boston Lyric Opera and Handel & Haydn Society Orchestras) in the balcony produced a spectacular phonic effect for those of us seated below, with the reveling music showering down from both sides.
The program continued with one of Bach’s few secular cantatas, the wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BVM 202), played spectacularly by NEC faculty including renowned violinist Miriam Fried, former Takács Quartet violist Roger Tapping (hear him on their great Beethoven Quartet cycle), BSO principal oboist John Ferrillo, and Lesser, NEC President Emeritus, on cello. Soprano Lisa Saffer provided spot-on and perfectly intoned vocals that gave the performance not only the joyous and celebratory nature one would expect from wedding music, but a pedagogic timbre–as if the listener is being instructed in lessons of love, lessons the lyrics do provide. The cantata is comprised of a series of alternating arias and recitatives, with the instrumentation varying between each segment. It began with a sinfonia of a garnished oboe solo that serves as a testament to the bliss of love and continued with showcases, particularly of, the talents of Fried, Ferrillo, and Lesser. The ensemble played together as if they’ve been doing so for years.
Mozart’s Quintet in G minor (K. 516) completed the concert, with stellar performances again from Fried and Tapping.
First Monday concerts continue on November 2nd, December 7th, March 1st, April 5th and May 3rd (or the first Monday of each month), all at 8:00 p.m. in Jordan Hall free of charge. Highlights include Stockhausen’s spacial composition Kontakte performed by NEC’s new music champion and Sick Puppy ringmaster Stephen Drury on December 7th and a program on May 3rd featuring NEC’s resident Borromeo String Quartet playing Wolf, Beethoven, and Schuller.
Monday’s concert reminds us that there’s plenty of great music to be heard in Boston absolutely free. NEC puts on something like 600 (mostly free) concerts each year. Last week the NEC Philharmonia, conducted by Hugh Wolff, gave a rousing performance of The Rite of Spring. See their concert calendar for listings.