Oedipus schmoedipus

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  January 21, 2011

Given the stirring semi-staged concert version that Federico Cortese led of Macbeth, the most fulfilled of Verdi's early operas, and the demise of the New England String Orchestra, which he'd been directing, I'd love to see him reinvent the old Boston Concert Opera and give us a regular series of musically distinguished versions of operas unlikely to be staged by our leading opera companies. He drew exceptional performances from the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, Holly MacEwen Krafka's New World Chorale (singing witches, assassins, and Scottish patriots up in the Sanders Theatre balcony), and a strong cast. Sturdy yet sympathetic Met and NYC Opera baritone Louis Otey sang the taxing title role (he had to recharge his battery before the final act, and did), but tenors Brian Landry and Steven Sanders nearly stole the show as Macduff and Malcolm. Lady Macbeth was the essentially miscast soprano Diana Jacklin, who had a large-scale and pretty upper register (which made, thank goodness, for a touching "Sleepwalking Scene") but few of the part's crucial low notes, an uncomfortable register break, little of the "ugly" vocal grit or biting diction Verdi wanted, and a crude projection of character.

Marc Verzatt's skillful stage direction kept most of the action simple, and he had at least one brilliant idea. One of the sillier aspects of Macbeth is Verdi's chorus of witches. But here, while the chorus sang, three dancers reeling and writhing in black and red gave us plenty of toil and trouble. The lead witch was none other than fondly remembered former Boston Ballet prima ballerina Laura Young. This event kicked off the 150th anniversary of Italian reunification.

Neither a bad cold nor last-minute changes of accompanist and program could prevent soprano Christine Brewer's Boston recital debut (Celebrity Series of Boston) from being a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying concert. Brewer obviously has technique to burn — a blazing, clarion voice that she can also scale down to tender intimacy, with commendable diction — along with both stylistic variety and conviction. She can even whistle!

She and pianist Craig Terry got off to a rough, heavyhanded start in Alceste's heroic confrontation with the Underworld in Glück's "Divinités du Styx," but they warmed up during Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and three big Richard Strauss songs, and they really started to cook in Benjamin Britten's sexy and witty Cabaret Songs (lyrics by Auden including the chilling "Funeral Blues" recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral). The program ended with John Carter's Cantata (a cycle of spirituals) and a fragrant bouquet of old-fashioned diva encores (like Idabelle Firestone's "If I Could Tell You," theme song of radio and TV's Voice of Firestone). Brewer struck her deepest emotional chord in her most lightweight number, her encore: "Mira," from Carnival, Bob Merrill's Broadway musical based on the film Lili. "Can you imagine that! Can you imagine that! Everybody knew my name!"

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