Arts Review

“Opera” Three Ways in Boston

I don’t like opera. There, I said it. I enjoy individual operas, to be sure, but opera? The genre, the institution and everything that comes with it? More often than not, I pass in favor of something else. And I do not think that’s such an unusual position, even among classical music devotees. For opera asks a lot of its audience. It asks you to suspend disbelief in order to follow ridiculous and convoluted plots. It asks you to look past characterizations of women and racial and religious minorities that upset contemporary sensibilities, to put it mildly. Perhaps most audaciously of all, it frequently asks you to devote three-plus hours to the hearing of a single work. Who’s got the time for all that?

So I was pleased to attend three recent Boston productions that offered new visions of what opera could be. In the New England Conser­vatory’s production of Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco, the Boston Early Music Festival’s La storia di Orfeo, and the American Modern Opera Company’s Cage, I encountered three sets of ideas about what it means to make opera in the twenty-first century. Taken together, these three productions serve as a guide for those seeking to produce opera that is engaging and pleasurable, thought-provoking and unexpected.
Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco, produced by the New England Conservatory’s graduate opera studies program at the Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theater, was the most conventionally operatic performance I attended. But it was far from conventional. Though Postcard from Morocco possesses many of the qualities that define traditional opera, the libretto by John Donahue sets it apart. Based on A Child’s Garden of Verses, a book of poetry by nineteenth-century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, Donahue’s libretto establishes a theatrical world that was unique at the time of the opera’s 1971 premiere and remains so to this day.

The synopsis of Postcard from Morocco begins inconspicuously enough: “A small group of people wait in a railway station.” As stage director Joshua Major observes in a program note for the NEC production, the setting is “seemingly abstract,” with an unclear “sense of time” and undefined relationships. The year is ostensibly 1914, the place Morocco, but there is no clear indication of either. In fact one of the production’s few missteps was the decision to dress the orchestra members in stereotypically Moroccan garb (fez and all), which appeared as not only exoticist, but also somewhat on-the-nose considering the otherwise vague setting.

Despite that setting, Major argues, “somehow a story emerges.” Yet I would contend that what makes Postcard from Morocco special is that it works in spite of the fact that a story does not emerge. As might be expected, the seven characters board their train toward the end of the opera’s one act. But up until that point, almost nothing of consequence takes place. Postcard from Morocco is an opera about waiting, and the waiting is filled up with misunderstandings, distractions, and daydreams. There is frequently a tinge of the uncanny. One character sings an aria to her hand mirror; another carries a cake box in which she claims to keep her lover. One character plays the cornet, another sells shoes; both refuse to show their prized possessions to the others.

If all this sounds a touch surreal, it breezes by thanks to Postcard from Morocco’s consistent humor, which the vocalists communicated effectively. Among the funniest moments was a scene in which two men engage in a sort of hypothetical one-upmanship while imagining different kinds of ships; Gregory Sliskovich and Matthew O’Donnell delivered the absurdist lines to perfection (NB NEC’s production of Postcard from Morocco featured two mostly different casts performing on alternating days. I attended the November 24 performance). In this scene as throughout, the performance benefitted from the student singers’ palpable enthusiasm. Indeed Postcard from Morocco is in many ways an ideal production for a conservatory setting. The opera isn’t overly long (around 1 hour, 40 minutes without an intermission), and the score calls for a modestly sized pit orchestra of eight players (three strings, clarinet, trombone, guitar, keyboard, and percussion). Each role, most of which are identified only by voice type (“soprano,” “lyric tenor,” “coloratura,” “baritone,” etc.), is given at least one moment to shine. The single named role, “Mr. Owen,” is also the only role that is clearly more prominent than the others; David Rivera-Bozón delivered an impassioned performance of Mr. Owen’s extended soliloquy with which the opera concludes.

Other standout performances were delivered by Theodora Nestorova and Lucas Coura, who played the only non-singing roles in the opera, identified simply as “Mime.” At times the two mimes operated in the shadows, moving props around in the manner of especially bold stagehands. At other times they interacted directly with the singing characters, frequently playing the straight man to the others’ over-the-top theatrics. The cumulative effect of the mimes’ presence was to give the impression of a self-aware wink to the audience from Argento and Donahue, one of several ways in which Postcard from Morocco feels like a send-up of the operatic genre as a whole. An instrumental interlude is entitled Souvenirs de Bayreuth and is a clear parody of Wagnerian excess. Later, the coloratura soprano and lyric tenor (Kate Wood and Sliskovich) break into a love duet in German (“Ach, Komme, mein Liebchen, Hand in Hand durch den Wald zu geh’n”); the other characters ignore them.

This is what Postcard from Morocco has to offer: many of the pleasures of a traditional opera-going experience, without all the barriers to entry. There is wonderfully lyrical music, but not too much. There is theatricality that recognizes itself as such, instead of trying to pass for verisimilitude. There is no convoluted plot that barely hangs together; there is no plot at all. Here is an opera for people who don’t like opera. Here is an opera for people like me.
If Postcard from Morocco succeeds by moving past the generic expectations of opera’s nineteenth-century golden age, the Boston Early Music Festival’s La storia di Orfeo (The History of Orpheus) looks to opera’s origins for inspiration. The production is a pastiche opera (or pasticcio), a once popular but now largely overlooked subgenre in which the music of several different composers is stitched together. BEMF smartly chose to base its pastiche around a well-known story that also happens to have dominated the first century of opera composition: the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and soprano Amanda Forsythe starred as the two forlorn lovers, accompanied by the ten-piece BEMF Chamber Ensemble. Most of the production’s music was drawn from three operatic treatments of the myth, all of which are entitled L’Orfeo. Lesser-known compositions by Antonio Sartorio (composed in 1672) and Luigi Rossi (1642) mingled with the be-all-end-all of Baroque opera, Claudio Monteverdi’s work of 1607. La storia di Orfeo is thus not only a history of the character of Orpheus, but also a history of the operas that bear his name.

BEMF is to be commended for taking a chance on a type of production that is likely unfamiliar to many audience members. A pastiche opera undermines the composer-centric model on which most classical music economies rely. Institutions like BEMF, prominent enough to function as brands unto themselves, are thus some of the only groups that can afford to mount a production with more music by Sartorio and Rossi than by Monteverdi. And afford it they did; most of the 1,051 seats at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall were filled. Whether or not that venue constituted the best artistic choice is another question. Jaroussky’s and Forsythe’s voices could be heard well enough, but the small period-instrument orchestra seemed ill suited to such a large hall. To my ears the ensemble never surpassed a mezzo-forte, even as I listened from the fifth row.

Volume issues notwithstanding, the BEMF instrumentalists played with style and connectivity throughout. Particularly impressive were the seamless transitions between numbers. Though such transitions often included a switch to a different composer, La storia di Orfeo never felt disjointed and functioned convincingly as a unified whole. The first half, for example, concluded with the inspired pairing of Rossi’s “Lagrime, dove sete?” (O tears, where are you?)—in which Orpheus laments his absent love—and Biagio Marini’s brooding Passacalio from Sonate per ogni sorte die stromento musicale (often known as the Passacaglia in G minor).

The opening scene of the second half was one of several moments at which La storia di Orfeo’s subtle-yet-effective staging outpaced what is typically found in “semi-staged,” concert hall opera productions. The scene opened with an aria from Sartorio’s L’Orfeo in which Orpheus, despairing at the death of Eurydice, entreats sleep to “soften the torments we mortals suffer.” Jaroussky slumped in a chair as Forsythe’s voice rang out from the balcony behind the audience. Singing as the “Shade of Eurydice,” she implored Orpheus to awake and rescue her from the underworld. A sinfonia followed, which led directly into “Possente spirto” (O powerful spirit) from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo; as Jaroussky noted in the program, he possessed the requisite “temerity” to perform that famous number as a countertenor instead of the usual tenor.

The latter part of the second half included some of the only moments at which La storia di Orfeo’s pastiche construction led to some awkwardness. Two selections from late seventeenth-century Germany, a sonata by Johann Rosenmüller and a scene from Agostino Steffani’s Orlando generoso (1691), were part of the problem. As Stephen Stubbs explained in the program notes, the latter was a holdover from BEMF’s June 2019 production of Orlando generoso, which also starred Jaroussky and Forsythe. “This is not the story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” Stubbs wrote, “yet in its timeless beauty, it expresses a longing of mythic proportions which would be at home in the telling of that story as well.” But with the three Orpheus operas by Sartorio, Rossi, and Monteverdi blending together so effectively, this single selection from Steffani unavoidably felt like an outlier.

The second half also suffered somewhat from a feeling of imbalance, with Forsythe appearing much less frequently than she had in the first half. Yet this issue was soon forgotten as Jaroussky commanded the stage with a series of long arias to close the show. The final number, Rossi’s “Lasciate Averno” (Forsake Hades), was spellbinding. “Why do I not die,” / Orpheus laments, “if death, with happy destiny, / can guide me back to the fair cause of my grief?” La storia di Orfeo closed with the words “Let me die, let me die!” Jaroussky’s voice trailed off, and the stage faded to black. It made for a stunning conclusion.

The lights came back on, and Jaroussky and Forsythe entered the stage to deservedly thunderous applause. After several curtain calls, Jaroussky quieted the crowd and explained that the performers wished to offer something more “optimistic” in the form of an encore, Monteverdi’s “Pur ti miro” (I adore you), the final duet from L’incoronazione di Poppea. I wish they hadn’t. Closing with music by Monteverdi sent the wrong message after the production had made such a strong case for the music of the less well-known Sartorio and Rossi. Worse yet, the dark and powerful ending of La storia di Orfeo was undermined by Monteverdi’s beautiful but saccharine duet, even if it was just an encore. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is not a happy story. I wish the BEMF team had let it stay that way.
If Postcard from Morocco offers a vision of what contemporary opera can be and La storia di Orfeo offers a look into a forgotten part of opera’s past, the American Modern Opera Company’s Cage presents its audience with something else altogether. In fact I would be hard-pressed to identify Cage as an opera at all, at least not without qualification, as it features no singing. Yet its inclusion in the AMOC’s repertory (and in this review) is by design. According to their publicity materials, AMOC seeks to “create a body of new, discipline-colliding music- and dance-theater works,” with the ultimate aim of “reimagining what it means to make opera in the twenty-first century.” With Cage they have done just that.

Conceived by pianist Conor Hanick and director Zack Winokur, Cage is centered around a complete performance of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, a set of twenty pieces for prepared piano composed between 1946 and 1948 and lasting a little over an hour. Accompanying the music is dance and choreography by Julia Eichten—more on that later. Performed at the Experimental Theater of the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cage initially gave off an impression of asceticism. The black box theater was appointed sparely, with a semicircle of audience seats three rows deep surrounding a grand piano at the center of the room. Both performers dressed in monochromes, with Hanick in all black, Eichten black and white.

Yet all this apparent simplicity belied the rich diversity that Cage had to offer. There was visual diversity, courtesy of lighting designer Christopher Gilmore. The piano was lit from every side, from above, and even from below. One common lighting setup involved a single light directly above Hanick, illuminating his face and hands and little else. Several moments featured a roving overhead light that brought an ever-changing array of audience members into view, which seemed appropriate for the composer who made audience “participation” famous with 4′33″. Perhaps with that landmark composition in mind, AMOC describes Cage as a “radically intimate experience, with each audience member sitting closely behind the pianist.”

There was also aural diversity. Sonatas and Interludes calls for a piano prepared with nuts and bolts, plastic and rubber, yielding a wonderfully varied sonic palette which often resembled that of a well-appointed percussion set. Following the performance, several audience members approached the instrument to inspect the preparation. Hanick played with verve and clarity (and without shoes), making a good case for Cage as a composer, not just a musical philosopher.

But Cage was a musical philosopher, and it was Cage’s ideas with which the dance component of Cage appeared to be engaging. After a musical introduction, Eichten entered the stage and delivered a frenetic but brief performance, exiting after just a few minutes. I expected her to reappear before long, and I suspect that I was not alone. But reappear she did not. At one point, the oversized door at the far end of the theater opened, with the person pushing it hidden from view. Sometime later a silhouette—Eichten’s, presumably—appeared from behind the door. Then it was gone. Before I knew it, the perfor­mance was over.

At first, I felt slightly cheated by this ending, if only because Eichten’s choreography and Hanick’s playing made for such an engaging combi­nation. But it felt undeniably intentional, and so my mind started to wander. What was Cage trying to say by introducing the dance element so early and so briefly, only to withhold it for the remainder of the production? I wouldn’t purport to know the answer to that question, but I left the theater thinking. Cage made me think in the same way that Cage often does, which is the best compliment I can pay it.
Would Cage’s experimentalism play in a place less self-consciously brainy than Boston? What about La storia di Orfeo’s historicism or Postcard from Morocco’s absurdity? Maybe, maybe not; either way, there are lessons here for future productions anywhere. Some of those lessons are straightforward: if you can help it, wrap up your show in under two hours. Others are harder to define but even more important: present your audience with something they don’t expect. That something could be the non-plot of Argento’s opera, the pastiche construction of La storia di Orfeo, or really any part of Cage.

Upon further reflection, I suspect that the feeling of having seen it all before is a major contributor to my distaste for the genre of opera. The hero almost always prevails, the lovers almost always reunite; yada yada yada. What was thus so exciting about these three productions was that they offered something new, something unexpected, something that might capture the imagination of opera lovers and opera skeptics alike. Maybe I do like opera after all.