Odyssey Opera goes long and large with Massenet’s “Le Cid”

September 19, 2015 at 3:51 pm

By David Wright

Tamara Mancini and Paul Groves performed in Odyssey Opera's concert version of Massenet's "Le Cid" Friday night. Photo: Kathy WIttman

Paul Groves and Tamara Mancini sang in Odyssey Opera’s concert performance of Massenet’s “Le Cid” Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Kathy Wittman

In the world of music theater, there’s opera, and then there’s grand opera.

Composer Jules Massenet is remembered today mainly as a master of the former, but, as Odyssey Opera proved with a spectacular concert performance of his Le Cid Friday night in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, this limner of perfumed oriental nights could go big when he wanted to.

More than one composer has found potential for passion and action on the grand scale in the story of Don Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, the 11th-century Spanish knight whose exploits in battle against the Moors earned him the Arabic-Spanish sobriquet El Cid (The Leader), but whose love life led to near-tragedy.

In dramatic terms, Don Rodrigo is Don Giovanni ‘s mirror image.  Though his motive is rectitude and honor instead of rascally self-indulgence, the results are similar: a father slain in a swordfight, a woman torn between righteous desire for revenge and love for the killer. 

But this Don is so honor-driven that when his lovesick fiancée Chimène falters in her demand for justice, he offers to make everything square by killing himself.  Fortunately, his services are needed back at the front, where his further triumphs in Act III give both his reputation and the opera a much-needed lift.

Conductor Gil Rose was something of a Cid himself on the podium Friday, marshaling his large forces in the seemingly-endless series of crashing climaxes typical of this genre.  Amid all the crisp execution, one wished for more of Massenet’s sensual side, not abundant in this score but findable if one looked for it.

Relief did arrive in Act II with the ballet sequence, obligatory for Paris in 1885, here consisting of a spicy and tuneful assortment of Spanish dances, fetchingly orchestrated to feature the winds (led on Friday by the outstanding flute-and-piccolo duo of Sarah Brady and Rachel Braude). Although Rose’s performance emphasized rhythmic drive over color and charm, one still regretted parting with this music and returning to the opera’s repetitious libretto, which turned barely enough plot for a half-hour TV episode into three-hours-plus (excluding pauses and intermissions) of recycling the same emotions over and over.

Yes, yes, that’s opera—the question is how it’s done.  Are the composer and performers able to sustain interest in the basic questions of love, honor, duty, jealousy and revenge over a period of hours by viewing them from ever-changing angles?

Massenet gave it a good effort, although these medieval codes of conduct, enshrined in the classic play by Corneille that is the opera’s source, hardly seem like his home turf. (In the subsequent 25 years of his career, the prolific composer did not write another grand opera.)  A few set pieces from Le Cid, such as Chimène’s “Pleurez, pleurez, mes yeux” and Rodrigo’s pre-battle vision of St. James, are deservedly famous on their own.

Friday’s cast, strong singers all, evoked the drama’s minimal action and abundant emotions with varying degrees of success. Tenor Paul Groves, tireless in his production of stratospheric high notes, sang the title role in a rather unheroic crouch at first, but straightened up to lead his men into battle in Act III.

Similarly, the tenor’s seemingly permanent scowl and rather pinched, inexpressive delivery softened by the climactic final act into convincing avowals of love and loyalty to Chimène.

The latter role is heroic in its own way, the battle being not between Spanish and Moors but between intense, conflicting emotions within herself. Soprano Tamara Mancini was up to the part’s athletic demands and sang with energy and sensitivity, but her rather velvety tone sounded a little forced in forte and didn’t produce all the wattage needed for the role.

As the Infanta (the king’s daughter), also enamored of Rodrigo, Eleni Calenos sang with admirable focus and agility, and an appropriately aristocratic bearing. Like so much else about this performance, her role could have used a touch more charm here and there, although, because her high rank prevented her from marrying Rodrigo, the traditional “spite duet” between her and Chimène turned into a surprisingly (and charmingly) cordial affair.

Resplendent in tailored suit and red pocket handkerchief, baritone Michael Chioldi made a jut-jawed figure as the all-powerful but clueless King of Castile, whose arbitrary choice of Rodrigo’s aged father over the ambitious Count of Gormas for a prestigious position at court is the “insult to honor” that starts the opera’s chain of retributions. Although his character tended to defer to God or even to Chimène when deciding whether to punish or promote Rodrigo, Chioldi’s clear, powerful singing kept up regal appearances.

The Count’s death in a duel with Rodrigo at the beginning of Act II was regrettable for many reasons, not least because Kristopher Irmiter’s acting skills and bold bass-baritone were gone for the rest of the night.  (One wished for a statue coming to dinner.)

Rodrigo’s father, the aged former war hero Don Diego, was artfully portrayed by the anything-but-elderly bass Oren Gradus in a warm and modest performance that had vocal power in reserve when needed.

Bass Robert Honeysucker sounded both deep and celestial up in the balcony as the vision of St. James.  Bass-baritone David Salsbery Fry and tenor Ethan Bremner shone more mundanely in their brief appearances.

It would seem that, to be a true lover of grand opera, it helps to have an insatiable appetite for high notes and cymbal crashes.  What becomes tiresome for one listener may be too brief for another, even at the three-and-a-half hour mark.  Friday’s one-time-only performance of Le Cid brought with it a sense of occasion and a nearly full house, but on the whole the audience’s response seemed more grateful and appreciative than wildly enthusiastic.

The opera will not be repeated.   The next presentation of Odyssey Opera (in collaboration with Boston Modern Orchestra Project) will be a concert in memory of Gunther Schuller, including that composer’s one-act opera The Fisherman and His Wife, November 22 at Jordan Hall.  odysseyopera.org; 617-585-1260.

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