By Susan Miron
The past week saw its New England premiere of “Maria Padilla,” and while it’s received mixed reviews in the press, no one could fault the singing. It’s just that it is a very strange opera, with all signs pointing towards a tragedy, but it all ends happily — for an opera, anyway.
Maria Padilla, by Donizetti. Directed by Julia Pevzner. Conducted by Gil Rose. Staged by Opera Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Boston, MA, through May 10.
One of Opera Boston’s primary aims is to present operas that are rarely performed, or as they put it, “risk taking.” Of course not all neglected operas are hidden gems: sometimes there are a number of good reasons why a composition by a major composer is overlooked.
Case in point: Maria Padilla, which has an odd, sad history. Initially it had a run of twenty-four performances at La Scala, but was completely eclipsed in popularity by Verdi’s Nabucco, scheduled for five performances but sustaining a run of sixty five its first year. Maria Padilla had to wait a century to get another hearing — a simple concert performance — in London in 1973.
Finally, it received its American premiere in Omaha in 1990 featuring a young Renée Fleming. The past week saw its New England premiere in the Cutler Majestic Theater, and while it’s received mixed reviews in the press, no one could fault the singing. It’s just a very strange opera, with all signs pointing towards a tragedy, but it all ends happily — for an opera, anyway.
Best known for his opera Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizett was mind-bogglingly prolific. Maria Padilla was the fifty-eighth of seventy-six operas that he wrote at the age of forty four. He died at age fifty, after suffering from syphilis and madness. Most opera lovers know Donizetti for his Lucia di Lammermoor which features one of opera’s most famous mad scenes. While Donizetti wrote mad scenes for soprano, for baritone, and for bass, only in Maria Padilla does a tenor, Maria’s father Don Ruiz de Padilla (Adriano Graziani), have a mad scene of his own, and for many in Friday’s audience, this was the vocally dramatic highlight of the evening.
Opera Boston deserves kudos for programming this beautiful, if problematic, opera in its New England premiere. The main reason no one has been willing to stage this gorgeous bel canto opera — full of luscious vocal and instrumental writing — is that Maria Padilla was written for three different sopranos of differing abilities. The cobbled together monster of a composite calls for an ultra-demanding vocal tour de force that very few sopranos can — or have the chops — to handle.
Enter hometown heroine Barbara Quintiliani, who considers Opera Boston her opera home. She’s sung three big (two title) roles here, and had tremendous critical success in this role two years ago in the 2009 Wexford (Ireland) Festival. She was the only candidate for the role, and she was absolutely brilliant in it. She’s someone I’d like to hear again, and soon. She nailed the trills, the florid runs, everything on pitch with consistent beauty for most of two and a half hours of a grueling part. Conductor Gil Rose conducted well, and had a good orchestra assembled for the occasion. There were beautiful solos for oboe, English horn, cello, and harp.
While the set was sparse, and the action sparser, the evening was an unqualified vocal success. aria and her sister Inez (Laura Vlasak Nolen) have a long duet which was, for me and many others, unforgettable. Ms. Nolen was the only singer new to the company; all the others had sung at Opera Boston before. While nothing about the scenery or direction would make me want to watch this production again, I’d love to hear it again, and with the same singers, especially the vocally indomitable Quintiliani.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.