Odyssey's "Miss Havesham"/"Water Bird": Double Trill

Heather Buck in "Miss Havesham's Wedding Night"

Odyssey Opera Boston’s current production at the intimate Modern Theater is a double bill presentation of Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Dominick Argento’s monodramas “A Water Bird Talk” and “Miss Havesham’s Wedding Night” (adapted from his full-length opera “Miss Havesham‘s Fire”). Both are fully staged, conducted and directed by Gil Rose, the company’s Artistic and General Director.

“Miss Havesham’s Wedding Night”, a musical soliloquy based on the character from “Great Expectations”, the one Dickens novel students often loathe, has a libretto by the late John Olon-Scrymgeour. It features Aurelia (did she actually have a first name?) Havesham (soprano Heather Buck), fifty years after she was jilted by her fiancée on the morning of their intended wedding day. Still dressed in her wedding attire (save one missing shoe) in her dressing room in Satis House in Essex, England, everything in the room untouched for all those years, she reenacts all that happened to her that fateful day when she first received the note with the last-minute breaking of their engagement. Smashing all the clocks and blocking out any light from outdoors, she had vowed never to leave the room or take off her gown and veil. She imagines how different her life would have been if the note had never been sent, and laments: “I am out of my wits“ (which seems clear). Interrupted by her chambermaid (Raya Louise Malcolm in a mute role) with her morning tea, she prepares to tell the young innocent Estrella (Victoria Leigh Isotti, another mute role) “all about men”. Pity poor Estrella, and even moreso her future “Pip”.

“A Water Bird Talk”, with a libretto by the composer, is based very loosely on Chekov’s “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” and J.J. Audubon’s “The Birds of America”. It centers around a gentleman lecturer (baritone Aaron Engebreth) speaking to a ladies’ club on a summer evening (in “Maryland, or perhaps Virginia”) about water birds whose unusual habits just happen to mirror those of the lecturer’s own life (as a henpecked husband and father). Illustrating his talk with tinted magic lantern slides from Audubon’s work, he describes a half dozen birds, such as the cormorant whose young never leave the nest, the male phalarope who’s a stay-at-home father, the puffin who mates for life, and the innocent grebe who is prey for many a predator and disappears when a confrontation looms. His wife (whom he calls “an old crow”) listens from the wings with discernable throat clearance and coughing, and finally leaves in disgust. He then digresses as he reveals the sad facts of his misery due to his wife’s overbearing manner and the ridicule of his six or seven daughters (about the exact number he was unsure), all born on the thirteenth of September. Ironically, the off-stage wife has referred to him as a booby and a loon.

These two pieces have more in common than the fact that they are musical monodramas by the same composer. Both take place around the middle of the nineteenth century, and both reveal more and more about their idiosyncratic protagonists, one increasingly mad and the other increasingly hysterical (in both senses of the term). Buck was extremely effective in both her memorable singing and intense acting in a very demanding role, and Engebreth provided the perfect comic counterpoint to the evening with his believable bumbling and growing panic. Their accomplished singing was accompanied by the impressive Odyssey Opera Orchestra, with sixteen instrumentalists in the former piece, and thirteen in the second, decisively conducted by Rose. The Projection Design by Callie Chapman had a prominent place in both pieces, eerily contributive in the first and more straightforward in the lecture in the second. The imaginative Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, complex Lighting Design by Linda O’Brien, and appropriate Hair and Makeup Design by Rachel Padula, all added to the enjoyment of both of these accessible operas.

As music, both of these monodramas had their distinctive attributes, the first emphasizing tragic pathos, the latter more humorous even if equally grotesque. Miss Havesham is haunted by dimly-remembered tunes with ethereal tonalities, and the unnamed Lecturer (in a libretto written this time by the composer himself) is surrounded by motifs that vary from rhapsodic avian paeans to the more pathetically personal. This double bill is to be repeated Sunday afternoon November 23rd at 3pm. Next up for Odyssey Opera is the full-length opera, in conjunction with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, by composer Tobias Picker, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, to be performed December 7th at Jordan Hall. If the titular fox is half as wily as Argento, it should surely prove to be another high point for this creative company.

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