Intermezzo's 'Diva Monologues'

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  September 25, 2012


John Whittlesey's feisty little Intermezzo chamber opera series has just entered its 10th season. I root for it. It's probably done more premieres than any other opera company in town, and although its batting average is well below .500, it's produced two of the best opera events in recent memory: Kurt Weill's brilliantly cynical Seven Deadly Sins and the first and best of Benjamin Britten's three "church parables," Curlew River (my choice for Boston's best staged opera production of 2006). Next April, Intermezzo will offer Britten's third and rarer parable, The Prodigal Son, at First Church Cambridge.

I was eager to see Intermezzo's most recent production — at the freshly refurbished Modern Theatre (now run by Suffolk University). This charming 150-seater, with its small orchestra pit, is a perfect venue for chamber opera. And this time, we got three. Under the rubric "The Diva Monologues," Intermezzo gave us three one-act operas in the form of extended solos for sopranos: At the Statue of Venus (2005), about a woman waiting in a museum for her blind date, by Jake (DeadMan Walking) Heggie and librettist Terrence (MasterClass) McNally; The Stronger, Hugo Weisgall's 1952 updating of Strindberg's brief confrontation between two women (one silent — but which one is the title character?); and Dominick Argento's Gothic, neo-Dickensian Miss Havisham's Wedding Night (1981).

The divas were three of Boston's most impressive sopranos: Kristen Watson as the nervous bachelorette, Janna Baty as the overbearing wife who meets her silent rival at a café, and Barbara Kilduff as the dotty spinster abandoned at the altar decades earlier. Their expert "orchestra" consisted of, respectively, pianists Linda Osborn, Stephen Yenger, and Brian Moll (also playing a harmonium-sounding keyboard). Veteran designer Bill Fregosi supplied the elegantly minimal sets.

The stage directors (Marc Astafan for the Heggie; Kirsten Cairns for the two others) had the bigger challenge, and they got powerful performances yet without succeeding in making the divas' stage movements seem inevitable. Cairns had Baty raving all over Fregosi's café; perhaps less (or no) movement here might have been "stronger."

But operas depend most on their music. The weakest score was Heggie's recitative-lite for McNally's heavy-handed text (you'd think a single woman in 2005 would no longer be a pre-feminist stereotype). Weisgall's unthreatening atonality had more character, variety, and bite. Argento at least built unmemorable music to big climaxes. None of the music soared. Even divas have a hard time driving a vehicle with a flat tire.

UP NEXT! :: Boston Musica Viva: "Allusions," with John Harbison's Mirabai Songs, Peter Lieberson's Raising the Gaze, and Andy Vores's Umberhulk:: September 28 :: Tsai Performance Center

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