Taken together, it’s a bracing, provocative, and – perhaps above all – fun survey of music for the stage from, for England, the conspicuously abundant 20th century.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
You’ve got to hand it to Odyssey Opera music director Gil Rose: nothing he’s yet done with his company has possessed a whiff of predictability, complacency, or ease. The second part of Odyssey’s second season, billed as “The British Invasion,” is no exception, and it’s poised to take off this weekend and run, on and off, until mid-June.
Odyssey’s “British Invasion” is framed by two operas from opposite ends of the spectrum: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor; and Thomas Adés’ racy Powder Her Face, a retelling of the life of Margaret Campbell, the so-called “Dirty Duchess” of Argyll. In between comes the enticing double-bill of William Walton’s The Bear (after Chekov’s play) and Arthur Sullivan’s The Zoo, plus an evening of five monodramas for voice and orchestra. Taken together, it’s a bracing, provocative, and – perhaps above all – fun survey of music for the stage from, for England, the conspicuously abundant 20th century.
Vaughan Williams wrote Sir John in Love in 1928, crafting his own libretto after Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and incorporating into it texts by Philip Sidney, Thomas Middleton, Francis Beaumont, and John Fletcher. He also set a number of English folk tunes throughout the score, the most famous of which became his Fantasia on GREENSEEVES. Odyssey’s production, which can be seen on May 17, 20, and 23, is directed by John Major (familiar to Odyssey audiences for last summer’s triumphant Un giorno di Regno) and conducted by Rose. Oren Gradus takes on the title role; Michael Chioldi and Samuel Levine are, respectively, Ford and Fenton; Megan Pachecano is Anne Page; while Courtney Miller, Mara Bonde, and Cindy Sadler make up the trio of, respectively, Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Page, and Mrs. Quickly.
Walton’s The Bear was one of his late successes. Written in 1967, it tells the story of the widow, Popova, and her burgeoning romance with her late husband’s creditor, Smirnov. Odyssey’s production, running May 22 and 24, features Stephen Salters as Smirnov and the excellent Janna Baty singing Popova. Gil Rose conducts and Lynn Torgove directs.
The Zoo premiered about two months after Arthur Sullivan’s first collaboration with W. S. Gilbert, Trial by Jury, opened in 1875, but before the two teamed up on a regular basis. It sets a libretto by B.C. Stephenson that tells a comic tale of two pairs of lovers and a series of sometimes-preposterous complications that come between them. Daniel Shirley and Chelsea Beatty play one of the sets, Colin Levin and Sadie Gregg the other. James Blachly conducts and Torgove again directs.
Bridging Odyssey’s staged productions, on May 30th, Rose and the orchestra present a series of five monodramas built around Benjamin Britten’s last vocal composition, the magnificent, haunting cantata Phaedra. Peter Maxwell Davies’ landmark Eight Songs for a Mad King closes the evening, while Lennox Berkeley’s Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila opens it. Also on the bill are Richard Rodney Bennett’s Ophelia and Judith Weir’s King Harald’s Saga. Rose conducts the superb Odyssey Opera Orchestra; Stephanie Kacoyanis, Martin Near, Erica Brookhyser, Elizabeth Keusch, and Thomas Meglioranza are the soloists.
Finally, between June 18 and 20 comes Adés’ Powder Her Face. Written in 1995, it brings the life and escapades of the scandalous Duchess of Argyll to the stage. Patricia Schuman sings the Duchess; Ben Wager, Daniel Norman, and Amanda Hall round out the cast. Rose, who led the opera’s Boston premiere in 2003 for Opera Boston, conducts and Nic Muni directs.
In all, “The British Invasion” is a delightful counterbalance to September’s striking, often moving, local premiere of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and the company’s November offering of operas by Dominick Argento and December performance of Tobias Picker’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. It also looks to be a strong continuation of last summer’s Verdi, Mascagni, and Wolf-Ferrari series. More information, including links to purchase individual tickets or a festival pass, can be found on the Odyssey Opera website.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.