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Odyssey Opera Gets 'Seria' In Third Season With 'When In Rome'

Gil Rose conducts Odyssey Opera. (Kathy Wittman)
Gil Rose conducts Odyssey Opera. (Kathy Wittman)
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Odyssey Opera, Boston’s liveliest and most inventive opera company, is determined to give us unusual repertoire in convincing and entertaining versions. Last year’s “British Invasion” had superb fully-staged productions — among the year’s best — of overlooked comedies by Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Arthur Sullivan (sans Gilbert) that few Bostonians had ever seen before, plus a welcome revival of Thomas Adès’s scandalous “Powder Her Face” (which Odyssey artistic director Gil Rose had previously conducted for Opera Boston’s Opera Unlimited series in 2003). Odyssey is now entering its third season, called “When in Rome,” with two more local premieres June 3-12: Gluck’s “Ezio” and Mozart’s “Lucio Silla” (in a radio interview with WHRB’s David Elliott, Rose said he was first tempted to call the season “Toga Party”).

These works are among the less familiar examples of one of the most challenging of all operatic genres, opera seria (“serious opera” — far from last season’s comedies). The essential formula for this type of opera is a string of very long three-part arias, in which the first part is repeated, from the top (“da capo”), after a different middle section. In these bravura arias, which challenge singers with some of the greatest technical demands ever imposed on the human voice, characters contemplate and analyze their difficult situations and complicated feelings. The “action” is all internal. These arias are then connected by quick-moving recitatives in which we find the dialogue that furthers the plot. Later in his career, Gluck himself began a reform movement to loosen this formulaic stranglehold.

At its worst, opera seria can be both stagy and static. Yet, the best of these works contain wonderful music and depths of feeling. Both “Ezio” and “Lucio Silla” are early works by great composers who eventually turned away from this antiquated form. “Ezio” dates from 1750, when Gluck was 36. A dozen years later he substantially “modernized” it, but Odyssey has chosen to do the original version.

“Lucio Silla” had its premiere in 1772, when Mozart was 16, having already completed three full-length operas and several shorter vocal works. What many Mozart lovers regard as his first true operatic masterpiece, “Idomeneo” (1781), was a more advanced and daring kind of opera seria. A decade later, after his successes with such far more modern musical dramas as “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Così fan tutte,” he surprisingly returned to opera seria with “La Clemenza di Tito,” one of his last works.

Both the Gluck and the Mozart involve Roman rulers. One is benign, but unfortunately in love with someone who is not in love with him; the other is a tyrant, who also loves the wrong woman. Skullduggerous plots abound, but both rulers survive to acquire some kind of magnanimity or “clemency,” and most of the lovers end happily united.

But bringing opera seria to life on stage may be almost as hard as having to sing in one. So I was particularly curious about how their directors were going to deal with the problems of staging this antediluvian kind of opera.

Isabel Milenski, the founder of New York’s Floating Opera, said that her focus for “Lucio Silla” would be on the body.

“Bodies are amazing expressive vehicles. They have to respond to the tempo of the music, and an inner tempo. Sometimes I’ll align all the tempos, sometimes there has to be a difference — the exterior and the interior must sometimes be in conflict. Who are these beings? These athletes? We have superhuman expectations, an endurance challenge like very few. We’re asking them to do something that is a kind of sacrificial act — willing to get up there, walk the tightrope and exhaust yourself. Against all odds. Each one of the arias is such an athletic feat.

“There’s a paradox within the genre. You have so long to explore — a meditation on emotion. So many turns that you can take. All the possible nuances. Exhaustive explorations. Where else can we go? What other depths can we uncover? Plunge! The music keeps opening and opening and opening. It’s like going into another time zone, where time doesn’t move as we know it. But there’s so much emotional urgency. It’s the paradox of time — it’s both slowing down and running out. There’s a wonderful tension. It’s not static! It’s all about channeling the dramatic tempo. Giving the dramatic need through the body’s shape. Tempo and shape. The shape of the body is a vehicle for this pain and urgency and violence.”

Milenski has strong feelings about the connection between opera and straight theater. “Theater is conflict — every moment,” she says. “Conflict is not comfortable. When you have a body that is not comfortable, then you have real drama. But there’s a difference,” she insists, responding to the trend at major opera houses to invite directors of plays and movies to stage opera, “between opera directors and play directors. Opera directors need to be opera directors. They need to be used to working with singers. You can’t be shy. You can’t be afraid to stop the singer in the midst of a giant melisma, not afraid to stop the music. Or do it fifty times until we make meaning of it. You have to be very aggressive in the process of working with the form. Singers don’t mind being stopped. You have to manhandle! This is not for the faint of heart and body.”

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Joshua Major, who, like Milenksi, is a second-generation opera director, returns to Odyssey Opera after his delicious productions of Vaughan Williams’s “Sir John in Love” and Verdi’s early comedy, “Un Giorno di Regno” (King for a Day). He admits to being a little nervous about this project. Though he’s staged “Idomeneo,” which is one of his favorite operas, and operas by Handel, he’s never staged a “classic” opera seria before. He begins with his admiration for the emotional richness of the libretto for “Ezio,” by the most famous of the 18th-century Italian poet-librettists, Pietro Metastasio, at the height of his powers. (Handel’s had used the same libretto in his version of “Ezio.”)

“I’m interested in clear and clean storytelling,” Major tells me. “Reinventing is not one of the things I do best. My own particular way of working is trying to illuminate the story. It’s my job to create a context for great singing (the demands are extraordinary) — a context that’s going to give that singing meaning. Gluck‘s sense of theater, of drama, is so intuitive, but quite dramatic. It depends on fantastic singers, which we have. But we need to keep the sense of fluidity and momentum, not let the arias stop the show. What’s interesting is the emotional response the singer has in that particular moment.”

The extraordinary singers in “Ezio,” Major says, “actually want to get away from just singing. They want the context, the constant growth within an aria. That’s the key to keeping the opera moving. The emotional growth is the movement. A character is growing, advancing. As the drama continues, hopefully the interest continues. The shorter arias have more to do with plot. But it’s the emotional narrative that’s the key to keeping things interesting.”

Of course, he adds, there has to be a certain amount of movement. “But once you start a musical idea, you need to finish it. If you keep interrupting the idea, then that actually becomes more static. The physical movement has to reflect the musical movement. It’s a mistake to start a piece and think this will become boring so you have the singers move. Of course, someone standing still and singing for 10 minutes will get tedious. But the movement has to reflect the growth of an idea — the character development, the human relationships. Blocking and movement is the least interesting thing, the last thing you come to. Just movement for the sake of movement — what’s the motive?”

Major says he really has no idea yet what to expect. “It’s a difficult but interesting challenge, which I love. Risk is good!”

The cast of “Ezio” includes mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson in the title role and Boston favorite, tenor William Hite, as the villainous Massimo. “Lucio Silla” features popular tenor Yegishe Manucharyan as the dictator Silla, renowned countertenor Michael Maniaci as the exiled senator Cecilio, and soprano Sara Heaton as Silla’s sister, Celia.

Bravo to Odyssey Opera, its brave singers, its intrepid artistic director/conductor, and these adventurous stage directors for taking on the challenge of these obscure but rewarding works.

Odyssey Opera’s “When in Rome” season begins with two performances of Gluck’s “Ezio” June 3 and 5, followed by three performances of Mozart’s “Lucio Silla,” June 8, 10 and 12 at the Boston University (a.k.a Huntington) Theatre. For more information visit Odyssey Opera’s website.

P.S. The enterprising Boston Opera Collaborative is presenting a condensed version of the ultimate opera seria, Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” at the Longy School’s Pickman Auditorium, June 11, 12, and 16-19.

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Lloyd Schwartz Twitter Arts Critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and Somerville's Poet Laureate.

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