The late Donizetti masterpiece, L’assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais) is a rarity indeed, even in Europe. Four years after the first performance, l’assedio was not performed again until 1990. One hundred and eighty-one years after its premiere in 1836, this Glimmerglass production marked the American premiere. During its composition, Donizetti had struggled with it and bent operatic conventions to seek performances in Paris. Ultimately, the opera was a tactical failure and Donizetti wound up with two versions, with an unequal number of acts. In preparation for this production, Francesca Zambello and Joseph Colaneri worked on a new performing edition that tightened loose ends and yielded a satisfactory, if not compelling, conclusion. Some ballet music was lost in the cuts, but dance (to curry favor with French opera goers) would be an awkward addition to the nobility and gravity of the plot. In the Zambello/Colaneri conclusion, the final exculpation of six sacrificial hostages was emotionally and musically heartrending.
After only one season, its inaugural, The Berkshire Opera Festival has found a place in my affections no less than Bel Canto at Caramoor, where, since 1997, Will Crutchfield has presented an outstanding series of Bel Canto operas, thoroughly researched and correctly sung, and the annual opera at Bard Summerscape, where Leon Botstein continues to offer fully-staged performances of forgotten operas, which are sometimes more and sometimes less closely related to the composer on whom the Bard Music Festival focusses in a given year. Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, co-founders and directors of The Berkshire Opera Festival, have chosen as their mission to present meticulously staged, impeccably sung performances of opera which are familiar to opera-lovers, but not among the overplayed warhorses of the repertoire. This made for a striking combination of Bellini’s Il Pirata, which premiered at the Met in the autumn of 2002, its only run there; Antonin Dvořák’s Romantic grand opera, Dimitrij, which was a great success in Prague during its first few years, but faded as the composer revised the life out of it, and has been very rarely performed in America; and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which premiered at the Met in 1962 and was last performed in 2011 – strange bedfellows indeed.
The Berkshire Opera Festival carries on this year with their second production, a radically different work written only a few years later by Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos. Brian and Jonathon very kindly agreed to chat about this year’s offering with me, and I think you will learn a lot about Ariadne and how it looks to the people who put it on the stage for your enjoyment. Opera is in one way entertainment and in another a great deal more, and no other opera brings this home to us more amusingly, delectably, and movingly than Ariadne.
Bard Summerscape visitors have much to look forward to in this year’s fully-staged production of Dvořák’s rarely performed grand opera, Dimitrij. For this ambitious work Dvořák set a Russian subject, the unhappy fate of the false pretender, Dimitrij, who appeared after the death of Boris Godunov, presenting himself as the son of Ivan the Terrible. The libretto was by Marie Červinková-Riegrová, one of the preeminent Czech librettists of the time, the deeply educated daughter of leading Czech politician František Ladislav Rieger, and a granddaughter of the famous historian František Palacký. In her libretto, which advisedly took liberties with historical accuracy, Dimitrij was a young Russian serf who was taken up by Poles and brought up to believe that he was in fact the son of Ivan. Hence in this opera, he is the innocent victim of ruthless Poles, eager to destabilize Russia. He is unhappily married the the Polish Princess Marina, who is merely interested in using him for her own national and personal ends.
If advance gossip is any indicator, this year’s Bard Festival, devoted to Giacomo Puccini and his World, was one of the most controversial. “Puccini! Controversial!” You say, “There’s not really enough in him to have a controversy about, is there? Those sappy tear-jerkers speak for themselves.” In fact there was a lot of grumbling. Some festival regulars stayed away, or dragged themselves to only one concert, the one that included pieces by Dallapiccola, Pizzetti, and Petrassi. Even with these absentees the Festival sold out, or came close to selling out. Most of the concerts and the panel discussions were packed.
One hoped and expected there would be performances of Pierre Boulez pieces in Boston this season to honor this great musician who died last winter. The Berlin Philharmonic, hardly a local group, will play one piece on its visit here in November. I don’t see anything else on the horizon. So, many thanks to Boston Musica Viva, our fine contemporary music ensemble now in its 48th year, for opening its season with Boulez’s perhaps most significant work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1954-57).
The Boston Lyric Opera has left its long-time, unsatisfactory home in Boston’s Shubert Theater. This season each production will be mounted in a different space, and the Boston Globe reports that BLO has joined some other local theatrical groups to bid for ongoing use of the fine Colonial Theater (now owned by Emerson College) when it is restored and reopens in a year or so—seems an outcome to be wished for. Meanwhile, BLO has started its current season with Bizet’s Carmen in the Opera House on Washington Street, once home to Sarah Caldwell’s highly creative Opera Company of Boston, in recent years home of the Boston Ballet and site of a never-ending stream of very popular traveling Broadway musical productions. The Opera House is a grand space with good acoustics, a broad stage, sizeable orchestra pit, and adequate lobby space on two levels. It is good to see and hear opera staged here once again.
Musically, this summer in the Berkshires, there was one event that was truly exciting, in the sense of something important that was entirely new…or almost, as the people behind it made entirely clear. Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the two impressive and engaging founders of the Berkshire Opera Festival, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, who promised to “bring fully-staged opera back to the Berkshires.” And this they have just fulfilled with a production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, that was in a way as perfect as an opera performance can get, considering that opera is the quintessence of imperfection among art forms—or perhaps that should be said of art itself. Musical and theatrical ability that was both solid and brilliant, imagination, good taste, and deep knowledge and understanding of the work and its authors flowed together with all the concentration and energy aroused by a new, make-or-break enterprise to create a performance that can only be described as an object lesson in how to perform opera—and a thrilling and moving one newcomers, casual opera-goers, and opera-makers alike can appreciate. The Berkshire Opera Festival has, within less than a week, made itself indispensible.