Ye gods!

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  April 28, 2010

The exception is mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Idamante, the prince whose father, Idomeneo, has involuntarily vowed to sacrifice him to Neptune in order to survive a shipwreck on his way home from the Trojan War. Eddy now sings at the Met, but she was already wonderful a decade ago, when, as a BU student, she stole Mozart’s other opera seria, La clemenza di Tito. While her colleagues in Idomeneo are snarling, cackling, giggling, simpering, and mugging (Elettra’s climactic mad scene is so over-the-top, it gets a laugh), or else doing nothing at all, she’s the one person on stage with true dignity and an inner life. She also has, by far, the richest voice. The opening-night audience loved her. She, and the superb chorus, in an opera that has some of Mozart’s most vivid choral writing, are the main reasons to sit through this otherwise tedious evening.

BU’s Opera Institute, established in 1985 by then-dean Phyllis Curtin, just presented the opera in which, in 1955, Curtin had one of her great triumphs, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Floyd’s own libretto is a kind of hillbilly Scarlet Letter (“I’m fixin’ ta tell ya about a feller I know’d”) crossed with The Crucible, with music in trickle-down Puccini mode. Two soprano arias (“Ain’t it a pretty night” and the haunting folk song “The trees on the mountain”) are now recital and audition staples. The composer (who evidently played an active part in rehearsals), Curtin, and stage director Sharon Daniels (a notable Susannah herself) held an informative and charming pre-opera discussion and Q&A.

But Floyd’s melodrama has not worn well, and John Traub’s elaborately detailed sets — forest, farmhouse, swimming hole where Susannah, like her Apochryphal counterpart, innocently skinny-dips — required scene changes that only intensified the stop-and-start of Floyd’s dodgy pacing. No one will ever inhabit the title role as totally as Curtin did, or sing it more vividly. (VAI has a live 1962 recording with Curtin hair-raising in the title role.) She talked of spending hours on the words “come back” until she felt comfortable singing the vowels accurately. The student singers, vocally and theatrically plausible, were game, but diction was shockingly dicy. Should an American opera so desperately need supertitles?

1004-pollini_main
MAURIZIO POLLINI It wasn’t till the encores that we got the real Chopin drama.

Steven Lipsitt’s Boston Classical Orchestra took a leap into the present, offering scenes from Herschel Garfein’s unfinished opera based on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (events in Hamlet observed by minor characters). No diction problem with baritones Chad Sloan and David Kravitz in the title roles (sometimes they themselves forget which one is which), uninhibited bass Jeffrey Tucker as the manager of the players Hamlet hires “to catch the conscience of the King,” and lovely mezzo Krista River as Alfred, a young member of the troupe, who has two beautiful and memorable songs. Much of Garfein’s score captures Stoppard’s ominous Beckett-like interplay, though a word-game-turned-quiz-show reminded me too much of Sondheim’s show-within-a-show in Follies. I wouldn’t have thought Stoppard could be musicalized, but Garfein, Lipsitt, and the superlative cast proved me wrong.

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