In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

OPERA in the 20th & 21st Centuries: BLO’s 2017/18 Season

May 26, 2017 1:22:19 PM
By Richard Dyer

Next Season, Boston Lyric Opera will again journey to four different performance venues, but the Company remains committed to strongly theatrical productions of meaningful works—three contrasting 20th-century operas and the World Premiere of an opera from the 21st century.


We don’t usually think of Puccini’s Tosca as a 20th-century opera, but in fact it was the first new opera premiered in 1900—on January 14, at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi. BLO has produced the opera twice before, and this time it returns to the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre. The Company’s first move to the Majestic in 1986, with Tosca, marked a great leap forward in BLO’s administrative history and artistic ambitions.


The play on which Puccini based the opera has extensive political content, which Puccini minimized—although most productions today put it back in. Director Crystal Manich’s take on the politics of Tosca remains to be seen; so far people are talking about how BLO’s new production will feature the American debut of the Russian soprano Elena Stikhina. She began her career in her home theater in Vladivostok and last Season, began to appear in various opera houses in Germany; following her Boston Tosca, she will make her Paris Opera debut as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Tenor Jonathan Burton sings Cavaradossi and baritone Daniel Sutin the villainous police chief Scarpia; Company favorite James Maddalena returns as the busybody Sacristan, and Daniel Stern, the conductor-son of the eminent violinist Isaac Stern, makes his BLO debut at the podium.


Previous productions of Tosca in the Majestic have used a reduced orchestration because of the small pit—which compromises Puccini’s colors and textures. BLO’s new version has been designed for a full orchestra that will play on a platform above the stage action; the production will then travel to Opera Omaha.


The World Premiere comes next, The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke & Mr. Hare, by composer Julian Grant and librettist Mark Campbell. Their subject here is the famous 19th-century serial killers William Burke and William Hare, who developed a lively business through supplying corpses for dissection by the eminent Edinburgh physician and medical researcher Dr. Robert Knox. Gravedigging was difficult for both practical and legal reasons, and punishment for the crime was severe. Murdering people “no one would miss” proved a whole lot easier; by the time the law caught up with the killers, they had smothered 16 victims.


Burke (Jesse Blumberg) and Hare (to be announced) are both baritones; the distinguished American tenor William Burden is Dr. Knox. The text and music are full of irony, outrage, and mordant, grisly humor, but the creators have also written roles for five of the forgotten victims who tell their stories, sing in ensembles, and contribute moral and emotional depth. One of them will be portrayed by the celebrated soprano Marie McLaughlin, one of the finest Mozart singers of her generation, making her local debut.


Esther Nelson, BLO’s General & Artistic Director, explains that the new opera was developed by New York’s Music-Theatre Group with a co-commissioning partner which had to drop out; when the work came to BLO’s attention, it seemed a natural for the Company’s adventurous Opera Annex and New Works program. “The opera is a real ensemble piece,” Nelson points out, “full of duets, trios, quartets, quintets and sextets—all the things that opera is good for. And Julian Grant uses his small orchestra ingeniously and really does know how to write for the voice.” History ended with further irony and so does the opera—Hare testified against Burke and got off; Burke was hanged before a crowd of 25,000 and then his body was surgically dissected in a public setting. His skeleton remains in the museum of the Edinburgh Medical School to this day.


The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht turned the musical world upside down after it premiered in Berlin in 1928. Within five years it had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times throughout Europe. New York critics, on the other hand, didn’t care for it and the show closed after only a dozen performances in 1933. Nazis hated it even more and banned it that same year.


In 1952, Leonard Bernstein programmed it on the first Festival of the Creative Arts at Brandeis University; his friend, the composer Mark Blitzstein, translated and edited the work, and narrated that first concert performance, which was also broadcast. It was so successful that it led to the famous off-Broadway revival which ran in New York for more than seven years, establishing the work both as serious art and an icon of pop culture. Blitzstein did clean up some of the work, toning down Brecht’s text; this politeness has not been a feature of most contemporary productions. A recent revival at Britain’s National Theatre brought with it a warning: “Contains filthy language and immoral behavior.”


BLO’s production will play in the Huntington Avenue Theatre. The building is only a little older than the work itself and only a hundred or so seats larger than the Berlin theater that housed the world premiere. Announced cast members include a favorite BLO diva, soprano Kelly Kaduce (Jenny), character baritone James Maddalena (Mr. Peachum), and baritone Daniel Belcher, who will sing “Mack the Knife.”


The Season closes with a tribute to the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, an unusual double bill of his early one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti and his final major composition, the song-cycle Arias & Barcarolles. The World Premiere of Trouble and Tahiti came during the same 1952 arts festival at Brandeis, but the composer was unhappy with the circumstances. His chamber opera did not get underway until 11PM before an audience of 3,000 people in an outdoor amphitheater with a bad sound system. But the performance did show one thing he needed to do, so he rewrote the final scene before the second production, at Tanglewood, where it was staged by Caldwell also in 1952.


Bernstein was 33 when he composed, and wrote the libretto for, Trouble in Tahiti. He wrote some of it on his honeymoon, which is paradoxical because the opera is about a troubled marriage—not his own, yet, but in fact the marriage of his parents and the home in which he grew up. The mood is frequently frothy, as the idea of a perfect marriage in the best of all possible worlds is satirized, especially by a vocal trio that comments on the situation and action in the manner of a Greek chorus but in the style of a singing commercial back in the days of network radio. Set not in the tropics but in suburbia, Trouble in Tahiti is the title of a dreadful escapist Maria Montez-style movie that the opera’s heroine goes to see in her despair—and sings about in the score’s knockout solo scene. At the end she sees it again, with her husband this time—it's easier to sit through a movie with him than for the two of them to communicate with each other.


Arias & Barcarolles was on the program of the last concert Bernstein ever conducted, although he was so ill on that Tanglewood Sunday afternoon that he handed this work over to another conductor. It is a series of songs, duets and ensembles mostly to his own texts, which reveal the lessons and effects of a lifetime’s experience. The unusual title comes from an unforgettable conversation Bernstein had with President Eisenhower after a concert. “I liked that last piece,” the President remarked. “I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.” The principal singers will be Heather Johnson, Mara Bonde, Neal Ferreira and Vincent Turregano, and the pianists for Arias & Barcarolles will be David Angus, BLO Music Director, and Brett Hodgdon, principal rehearsal coach/accompanist. Dates

for this event will be announced once a venue has been secured; anyone who wants to build a theater for the Company is welcome to do so.

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Richard Dyer is a distinguished writer and lecturer. He wrote about music for The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, serving as chief music critic for most of that time. He has twice won the Deems Taylor/ ASCAP Award for Distinguished Music Criticism.


This article was first published in The Marriage of Figaro program book.

Topics: BLO

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