Opera Brittenica’s light-voiced Christmas program provides mixed rewards

December 14, 2013 at 2:32 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Opera Brittenica presented a program of Benjamin Britten’s Christmas music Friday night in Wellesley.

The ancient traditions and mysteries of the Christmas season were a continuous source of inspiration for Benjamin Britten. And nowhere are those themes more evident than in two grand choral works, A Boy was Born and the popular A Ceremony of Carols, both offered by Opera Brittenica at the Unitarian Universalist Church Friday night in Wellesley.

Boston’s newest opera company, which plans to explore of Britten’s music well beyond this anniversary year, chalked up a major success this past October with its riveting and visceral production of The Rape of Lucretia. Friday night’s performance of Britten’s Christmas music proved more of a mixed bag.

A Boy was Born, composed when the composer was just 19, is a thickly textured work that, through a collection of Renaissance-era texts, recounts the story of Christ’s birth through a set of variations built from the opening song. Fragments of its melody return in various guises: in a murky bass line beneath the churning phrases of Herod, the third variation of the set, and in glassy hummed tones in the fourth, which recalls the journey of the Magi.

Unfortunately, little of the music’s rich imagery came off in Opera Brittenica’s reading due in large part to the slimming down of the composer’s original double-choir arrangement. From the opening phrases, balance issues plagued the tiny, nine-member choir. With only one singer per part, the upper and middle voices sounded thin, leaving the baritone and bass to stick out of the texture. Conductor Tyler Turner led with expressive gestures, but, try as he might, he couldn’t rescue the ensemble from the false starts, flimsy attacks, and shaky confidence. The choir–which sounded more like a collection of soloists–seemed not entirely comfortable with the music.

The symphonic scope and palette of A Boy was Born, of course, places heavy demands upon the singers. The texture is plump with wisps of melody. The “lullays” of the second variation, a lullaby of Mary to her child, bounce from part to part. But once again Opera Brittenica’s minimalist voicing, these phrases failed to connect.

The brightest moment, though, came in the prayerful “Jesu, as Thou art our saviour,” where the ensemble achieved a more uniform blend. Patrick Dailey’s countertenor floated with ease above sheets of sound emanating from the singers. But the thick webs of melodic lines that make up so much of this work, as in “Three Kings” and the anger-filled “Herod,” lacked coherency and strength.

Britten’s original voicing, at least, gives the singers the chance to lean upon one another for support, and undesirable gaps in the musical fabric can be avoided more easily. Perhaps with more time and focus, a minimalist arrangement, could make clear Britten’s intricate vocal writing, but, sadly, this performance failed to convince.

But what was lost in A Boy was Born was found again in the concert’s second half, when Turner led the singers in a focused, sensitive, and overall delightful performance of A Ceremony of Carols.

Based on old English and Latin texts, Ceremony is less a narrative than a musical reflection on the nativity. Britten originally scored the piece for treble voices and solo harp. Opera Brittenica performed the commonly heard arrangement for mixed choir.

This time the ensemble jelled, singing with plush tone and lovely flow in “There is no rose.” The chilly dissonances of “In Freezing Winter Night”clung together, adorning the musical texture the same way icicles hang from the branches of bare trees. Turner kept to conservative tempos, though the music remained buoyant. The trumpeting phrases of “Wolcum Yole!”and tail-chasing triple canon of “This Little Babe” resonated with clear diction. And through all, harpist Susan Miron played delicate and sensitive accompaniment.

Rounding out the program, a lovely selection of Britten carols, with their less demanding vocal parts, gave the singers the chance to offer some of their most musical moments of the evening.

The phrases of A Hymn to the Virgin rang with radiant warmth from the both sections of the choir, staged in front of the church and rear balcony. Sopranos and mezzos delivered Sweet was the Song (1931) with soft and generally focused blend, thanks to Turner’s doubling of the parts on the piano.

With Turner remaining at the keyboard, Opera Brittenica director Joshua Collier offered a reverent I Wonder as I Wander. Britten composed this simple and direct arrangement of John Jacob Niles’ song, which the composer and Peter Pears performed in many recitals, around 1940. Much like Britten’s Still Falls the Rain, the vocal line and accompaniment never overlap. Instead, the piano answers the tenor’s forlorn phrases with a flutter of birdcall figures. Collier’s tenor was soft and delicate for the outer verses. He opened up for the central one, his voice as commanding as a country preacher’s Sunday sermon.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Parish in Brookline. operabrittenica.com

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