The Jordan Hall stage is a pretty recalcitrant space for staged opera, especially since the orchestra has to be on stage. I sympathize with the challenge this hall presents. What looked like it might be a good idea was a series of platforms edged with rows of artificial candles (like footlights) surrounding the orchestra. But these platforms remained largely unused, crowding the singers into an unplayable space. Much of the staging, then, looked merely amateurish, even high-schoolish (as when Blin directs minor characters to mime private conversations behind the main action). Anna Watkins's costumes (especially Orpheus's baggy leggings and skirt) seemed tired and unattractive. No visual image added anything to what we were hearing. With such good singers and a wonderful orchestra, a simple concert version might have been far more effective.
BEMF has also just announced its next major production for its Festival in June: Handel's rarely seen first opera, Almira, with the same production team and musicians — June 9 to 16 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre (bemf.org).
The Celebrity Series of Boston brought back to Jordan Hall one of this city's favorite visiting chamber groups, the Takács string quartet, with special guest, now Boston-based virtuoso pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who does not perform here often enough. No question, the Shostakovich Piano Quintet that ended the evening was the high point. It's one of Shostakovich's rangiest, most eloquent, and most beautiful pieces, and the Takács's endearing warmth and Hamelin's uncanny combination of elegance and ferocity made a brilliant partnership.
The evening began with the Takács's effortless — perhaps even too effortless — renditions of Haydn's late quartet Opus 76, No. 5, and Schubert's Quartet No. 13 in A minor, the so-called Rosamunde. Some discriminating friends and the Globe's Jeremy Eichler wished for more bite, though no one could fault the sincerity or beauty of the playing.
In his review, Eichler took the Celebrity Series to task for bringing to Boston an easier program — easier listening — than the one the Takács was playing everywhere else on the tour, which included a less-familiar piece, a quartet by Benjamin Britten, which, because he and Shostakovich were such good friends, would have made more sense on the program. Wouldn't admirers of the Takács go to hear whatever they were playing? How many listeners would the concert have lost if there had been two 20th-century masterpieces on the program? How many aficionados of "modern" music might it have gained?
After all my years here, I still don't understand what attracts Boston audiences. Sarah Caldwell's stunning 1986 production of Janácek's The Makropulos Case, with the great Anja Silja in the title role, probably the first Janácek production in Boston, got some of the best reviews of Caldwell's career, but nobody came. I'm still shaking my head in disbelief at the poor attendance a few weeks ago for the BSO's extraordinary double bill of one-act operas by Stravinsky and Ravel — two of the most ravishing, poignant, and unthreatening works in the repertoire, with a superb cast and one of the world's great orchestras led by a star conductor, Charles Dutoit. Boston audiences are surely among the most sophisticated in this country. But sometimes they baffle me.