From the ashes of the sadly departed Opera Boston has arisen an exciting new company that has been winning an increasingly enthusiastic following. Odyssey Opera completes its unconventional second season, which began last September with a sold-out and widely admired concert version of Korngold’s lush romantic masterpiece "Die Tote Stadt" (“The Dead City”), with what it’s calling “British Invasion,” a series of fully staged operas new to most Bostonians, with a bonus concert of short operas for single singers.
The series opens with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Falstaff opera, "Sir John in Love" (1929), the least known of the three best known operas based on Shakespeare’s "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (after Verdi’s "Falstaff" and Otto Nicolai’s "Merry Wives of Windsor," a rare American production that Susan Davenny Wyner conducted beautifully for Boston Midsummer Opera in 2013). Vaughan Williams wrote his own libretto and added passages from other Elizabethan writers to the original Shakespeare. The endearing "Fantasia on 'Greensleeves'” for harp and strings was adapted from his use of the beloved English folk song in this opera.
The young Brooklyn-born bass-baritone Oren Gradus (who recently sang the role of Joyce DiDonato’s father in the Met-in-HD telecast of Rossini’s "La Donna del Lago") plays Falstaff. Odyssey’s music director Gil Rose conducts, with director Joshua Major, whose superb comic staging of Verdi’s early "Un giorno di Regno" was a hit for Odyssey last season. Performances are at the Boston University (a.k.a. Huntington) Theatre on May 17, 20 and 23.
"Sir John" alternates with a witty double bill of one-acts: William Walton’s "The Bear" (1967), taken from Chekhov’s comedy, and what might be the very first (as far as anyone can tell) American production of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s "The Zoo" (1875), a short opera with a libretto by British playwright B.C. Stephenson composed just after Sullivan’s landmark "Trial by Jury," his second collaboration with librettist William Schwenck Gilbert. (Farewell, Stephenson!)
Walton called his delightful "The Bear," a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, an “Extravaganza,” and for this production Odyssey couldn’t have assembled a more appealing cast: mezzo-soprano Janna Baty as the obsessively grieving widow and baritone Stephen Salters as her late husband’s boorish creditor. How could they not fall in love? How could we not fall in love with both of them? Rose conducts, and the staging is by another beloved Boston figure, the multi-faceted singer/director/cantor Lynn Torgove (May 22 and 24, BU Theatre).
The final Odyssey event of the Spring season doesn’t arrive for another month (June 18-20). Back in 2003, Opera Boston presented a series of chamber operas under the rubric Opera Unlimited. One of the brilliant successes of that venture was the Boston premiere of the scandalous "Powder Her Face" (1995), the first opera by the brilliant young Thomas Adès and perhaps the first in which an act of oral sex is written into the score. Gil Rose and Odyssey Opera are now bringing it back in a new production in a more acoustically friendly venue, the Boston Conservatory’s intimate theater on Hemenway Street. As the sex-hungry Duchess of Argyll, we’ll be hearing Patricia Schuman, who won rave reviews for her performance of the role in Philadelphia.
And while we’re patiently awaiting "Powder Her Face," Odyssey Opera will keep our interest whetted with an evening of five “solo operas” in concert (BU Theatre, May 30). One of them is Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s stunning "Eight Songs for a Mad King," with Thomas Meglioranza (Chou En-Lai in Opera Boston’s memorable 2004 "Nixon in China") as the demented George III.
There’s also Judith Weir’s "King Harald’s Saga," with soprano Elizabeth Keusch in eight different roles that include singing a duet with herself (she’s dazzled us with this once before, for Opera Unlimited in 2006); Benjamin Britten’s gorgeous and devastating last vocal work, "Phaedra," with Erica Brookhyser; plus pieces by Lennox Berkeley and Richard Rodney Bennett. For more information, including Odyssey’s lower-price festival passes for all four programs, visit their website.
Lloyd Schwartz is a music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and Senior Editor of Classical Music for New York Arts. Longtime Classical Music Editor of The Boston Phoenix, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994. He is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Follow him on Twitter @LloydSchwartz.