Odyssey Opera opens British festival with delightful Vaughan Williams rarity

May 18, 2015 at 12:14 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Oren Gradus as Falstaff in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Sir John in Love” at Odyssey Opera. Photo: Kathy Wittman

Odyssey Opera has quickly carved out a name for itself by offering performances of works that are well off the beaten path for most companies. Concert versions of Wagner’s Rienzi, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, and fully staged productions of lesser-known operas by Verdi are just a few of the works that have marked the company’s two seasons of operation.

Sunday afternoon at the Boston University Theatre, led by artistic director Gil Rose, Odyssey Opera kicked off a festival of British opera with a real treat, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love.

Performances of the opera have been rare since it first appeared in a professional production almost seventy years ago. Odyssey Opera is to be lauded for drawing attention to this neglected piece for it is thoroughly entertaining and as swift and hilarious as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.

The opera is also quite tuneful. Vaughan Williams wove a number of sixteenth-century English folksongs into his score, including “Sumer Is Icumin In” and “Greensleeves.” Moreover, the music is filled with the lush open harmonies and rich contrapuntal lines that characterize the composer’s pastoral style.

Vaughan Williams’ own setting of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the basis for the opera, is a more faithful setting of Shakespeare’s play than the streamlined version used by Verdi for the better-known Falstaff. The story involves a twisted plot of suitors pursuing a young girl, a fat knight’s ill-conceived plan to seduce and swindle money from the well-to-do wives of noblemen, and the women’s attempts trap him in revenge.

Oren Gradus is Sir John Falstaff, the hard-drinking, conniving, rotund knight who carries out a plan to sleep with the wife of Mister Ford, a citizen of Windsor. (Sir John in Lust may be a more apt title to the opera.) Gradus sang the role with a warm, rosy-toned bass well suited to the knight’s grandiloquent presence. His solo scene in Act 2, which involved him pouring kisses upon an open letter and singing off-key falsetto phrases, was milked for comic effect.

Michael Chioldi took some time to get into the role of Ford. He didn’t quite capture the character’s jealous anger in the first Act, bnut soon grew into the part. In Act 2, where Ford disguises himself as “Brook” to seek his own revenge on Falstaff, Chioldi effectively captured the character’s rage. And by the third Act, his depiction only grew darker. Chioldi’s baritone was sometimes strained in the upper register, though he made up for it with rich and resonant low voice. His most memorable singing came in the opening of Act 4, where he sang a tender “Pardon me, wife.”

Samuel Levine and Megan Pachecano had excellent chemistry as the lovers Fenton and Anne Page that feature in the opera’s secondary narrative thread. Levine’s tenor was light and bubbly, complementing Pachecano’s warm and smooth-toned soprano. Her brightest singing came in her solo “This is my father’s choice.”

Fine singing also characterized the rest of the cast. Courtney Miller and Mara Bonde each brought feathery voices to the roles of Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page respectively. Cindy Sadler was a dark-toned presence as Mrs. Quickly in “Sigh no more, ladies.” James Demler, Jonathan Cole, and Stanley Wilson sang solidly in their roles as Falstaff’s attendants, Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph.

Jesse Darden was whimsical as Slender, a poetic young nobleman. Robert Honeysucker sang with a booming and amber-toned baritone as the Host of the Inn. And Sumner Thompson, in his too brief role as Dr. Caius, sang with an appropriately nasal quality that brought out the humor from the archetypal French character.

The chorus’ scenes were some of the most enjoyable of the opera, with the company rendering Vaughan Williams’ silky phrases with glowing tone.

Joshua Major’s production was nimble and effectively staged, with the singer-actors keeping the story moving at a brisk pace. Transitions between scenes were especially smooth, the actors even placing and striking the sets through small comedic scenes of their own.

Katherine Stebbins’ colorful costumes placed the performers squarely in the Renaissance, and Stephen Dobay’s eye-catching set designs did the same. The simple set consisted of a backdrop that posed as the wall of an English country house and tables, chairs, and stools used to transform the stage into an inn. The country scenes were also effective and featured little more than a stage-length fence. Dennis Parichy’s lighting design added smooth shades of color. The final act, set in Windsor Forest, was bathed in whites and blues to aid in painting a fantastical setting.

In the pit, Gil Rose led a sensitive performance that enabled the lines of Vaughan Williams’ score to flower. The work brims with tuneful writing for winds, and the musicians of Odyssey Opera orchestra made fine work of the soaring string melodies and the many solos for flute and harp. Those were most evident in the instrumental version of “Greensleeves,” which introduced the scene in the forest.

Sir John in Love will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday at the Boston University Theatre. odysseyopera.org; 617-933-8600

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