Odyssey Opera is that rare American opera company that scours the past for unjustly neglected works. In the process it has understandably developed a loyal fan base. Currently, the Boston-based company is presenting a six-opera season of works about the Tudor dynasty and, as a sign of its inquisitiveness, does so without including an opera from Donizetti’s familiar Tudor-queen trio, which since the days of Beverly Sills has been thought of as a cycle.
The early nineteenth century offers a number of other worthy operas to choose from, including at least one by Donizetti himself, Il Castello di Kenilworth, in which Elizabeth I figures as the protagonist. Odyssey has taken on two operas by contemporaries of Donizetti. One is Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, to be seen in March, and the other is a work about Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, Mary Tudor: Giovanni Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra, seen at the Huntington Avenue Theatre on November 3 in what is believed to be its North American premiere.
Athough he composed some seventy operas, Pacini (not to be confused with Giacomo Puccini or the eighteenth-century composer Niccolò Piccinni) thrived especially in the years immediately preceding the emergence of Verdi with Nabucco in 1842. This was a time when he and Saverio Mercadante, a composer often spoken of in the same breath, had relatively little competition in Italy, in light of Rossini’s retirement, the death of Bellini, and Donizetti’s increased activity in Paris and Vienna. Building on stylistic advances by Donizetti (and, to an extent, Bellini), Pacini and Mercadante moved away from traditional bel-canto writing, which emphasizes vocal beauty, in favor of a more theatrical style of opera infused with elements of Romanticism. In the process they contributed to an artistic environment receptive to the explosive energy of Verdi’s early operas.
Based on Victor Hugo’s play Marie Tudor, Pacini’s opera has an Elizabeth and Essex–type plot, except that the queen is Bloody Mary, whose religious fanaticism on behalf of the Catholic church makes an extramarital affair seem somewhat implausible, and the courtier who enflames her romantic passion, Riccardo Fenimoore, is a purely fictional, and quite unsavory, character. (In Hugo he was an Italian; Pacini’s little-known librettist, Leopoldo Tarantini, made him a Scotsman, perhaps motivated in part by the vogue for Scottish characters—cf. Lucia di Lammermoor.) The third member of the triangle is Clotilde, who is the unwitting and sole heir of the Talbot family. Aware of her status and seeking to benefit from the absence of a Talbot heir, Fenimoore seduces Clothilde—to her considerable remorse, for she is in love with Ernesto, a commoner.
Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra has its share of routine music but also a number of telling moments that amply justify its revival. In an impressive duet that recalls Bellini’s Norma, Mary and Clotilde join forces as kindred souls wronged by the same man, while in an earlier allusion to Bellini, Ernesto (baritone) and Gualtiero (bass, a political enemy of Fenimoore) vow to bring about Fenimoore’s destruction in a duet redolent of “Suoni la tromba” from I Puritani. The dramatic highpoint comes in the finale of Act II when Mary, before her assembled court, confronts Fenimoore over Clotilde, a situation ratcheted up in tension by the unexpected arrival of Ernesto, who, heedless of his own fate, falsely accuses Fenimoore of conspiring with him to murder the queen. The act ends with a furious stretta ensemble.
These and other confrontations were skillfully handled in Steve Maler’s assured staging. The sets designed by Jeffrey Allen Petersen were attractively minimalist and avoided any suggestion that the production was done on the cheap. Jorge Arroyo’s lighting was a distinct asset in this regard. Brooke Stanton’s traditional costumes were also a plus, not least the brilliant red gown worn by Mary, an obvious color for this queen.
Hugo’s plays often raise issues of social injustice, with capital punishment drawing particular attention in Marie Tudor, a point carried over into the opera. Here the capital offense is based on Ernesto’s false charge; furthermore, because of complicating factors, the audience is kept guessing as to who—Fenimoore or Ernesto—will be sent to the block, thereby emphasizing the often capricious nature of capital punishment. Unfortunately, in a miscalculation, one of the accused was shown ascending the scaffold in the rear of the stage while Mary and Clothilde, seemingly oblivious to this, observed the execution by looking out into the audience as if it were taking place there; the result was confusion at a tricky point in the plot.
Amy Shoremount-Obra offered a sensational portrayal of Mary, sung in a rich, gleaming dramatic soprano of ample size. Mary doesn’t sing in Act I, but Shoremount-Obra gave the proceedings a lift with her concentrated account of Mary’s entrance aria in Act II, in which the queen, already suspecting Fenimoore’s infidelity, asserts that should he cause her grief, she will trample his sweet, enchanting face with her own feet. Shoremount-Obra was equally compelling in the opera’s aria-finale, in which Mary, shaken by Fenimoore’s execution, seeks comfort and pardon from the heavens for having loved blindly.
Also excellent was Alisa Jordheim, who sang Clotilde in a bright, perky lyric soprano with plenty of agility. She was especially affecting in the florid, rhythmically bouncy Act III cabaletta in which Clotilde resolves to save Ernesto. Kameron Lopreore brought an appealing tenor voice to Fenimoore’s music and dealt efficiently with the role’s high tessitura but sometimes lacked firmness of tone. Leroy Davis was an energetic presence as Ernesto, although his robust baritone at times sounded rough. James Demler sang with dark, imposing tones as Gualtiero. Conducting an admirably full account of the score, Gil Rose presided over an exciting, stylistically assured performance.