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Opera Review

With Argento double bill, Odyssey Opera takes two strange personal journeys

Sun Nov 23, 2014 at 3:04 pm

By Angelo Mao

Heather Buck stars in Dominick Argento’s “Miss Havisham’s Wedding” at Odyssey Opera. Photo: Kathy Witt

Opera Odyssey delivered two generally fine performances Saturday night at the Suffolk Modern Theatre in a double bill featuring American composer Dominick Argento. Both operas—Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night followed by A Water Bird Talk—explored a single character’s psychology through monologue, and both were abetted by committed performances and Gil Rose’s sensitive conducting.

Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night was the more pyrotechnic and less successful of the two. The piece is a mad scene for the Dickens character Aurelia Havisham, who, driven insane from being abandoned by her groom on her wedding day, spends the next fifty years in her wedding gown, hating men and plotting revenge. The scene offers plenty of juice for a soprano, but it is dramatically inert. The problem is that Havisham neither develops nor reaches a resolution over the course of the scene. Havisham revisits the crucial moments leading up to the disaster, but the eventual result—a long-abiding and fatal hatred for men—is only implied. Neither is there an emotional bedrock to underpin the scene; Aurelia Havisham’s madness is fascinating, but does not quite become pitiable.

Nevertheless, soprano Heather Buck delivered a convincing and hair-raising performance. Her voice is gleaming from top to bottom, and though the uppermost notes Saturday night needed more warmth, Buck met every demand fearlessly. Particularly commendable were her floated high notes and the fluency with which she handled Argento’s florid writing.

A Water Bird Talk, adapted as a combination of Alexander Pushkin’s one-act On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco and James Audubon’s Birds of America, is a monologue of a different sort. The main character, unnamed in the opera, is delivering a lecture on the subject of water fowl and their peculiar habits. These birds and their habits become metaphors for his own henpecked existence, and engender the growing realization that he has wasted his entire life. It’s grim stuff, but it works because the libretto provides a healthy dash of humor.

 

It also helps that Argento’s writing is flawless. Whereas the vocal ravings in Miss Havisham only nominally reflect the character’s madness, in Water Birds Argento skillfully weaves together a virtuosic variety of music and styles to chart the lecturer’s psychological journey, ranging from imitative bird songs and actual bird songs to melodic hymns and even Latin mass.

Aaron Engebreth gave a compelling and appealing performance as the lecturer. Engebreth immediately captured the audience’s sympathy with his superb acting as the sensitive, nervous, and downtrodden lecturer. His warm baritone was at its best during big declamations and in the conversational banter with an invisible audience. Though he eventually found the right way to convey the character’s sublimated romanticism, that part of the music—manifested by a melody that could have come straight from Puccini—could have been sung with greater abandon.

Odyssey Opera’s staging was evocative and tasteful, featuring clever use of a projector for both operas. Notably, no libretto projections were provided. Although this meant that the climactic moments were generally sacrificed, both Buck and Engebreth sang with excellent diction, and the psychological journeys they charted were intelligible to the ear.

 

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