Central Square's "Photograph 51": Developing Risk

Stacy Fischer in "Photograph 51"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

I love the shapes of things”. So spoke British scientist Rosalind Franklin. That statement expressed in concrete terms her focus on determining the form that would become known as the deoxyribonucleic acid molecule's double helix, otherwise known by us mere mortals as DNA. The year was 1952, a watershed date in the development of modern science's discovery of the existence and shape of DNA. That eureka moment led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize for its discoverers. Or did it? Three male scientists were granted the award, ignoring the demonstrable fact that their claim to have been the first and only discoverers was a sham, given the role of one female scientist, the completely overlooked British biophysicist Franklin. In a word, she was robbed. How that gradually, insidiously, inevitably happened is the crux of the current offering at Central Square Theatre, Photograph 51 by playwright Anna Zeigler. As the character of Franklin herself says in the play, “we see everything except sometimes what is right in front of us”. And for not taking that leap as opposed to more deliberate study, she was ignored.

Josh Gluck & Stacy Fischer in "Photograph 51"
(photo: Maggie Hall )

It was Zeigler's intention to right that wrong, at long last. Now, in its thirtieth season, along with commemorating Central Stage Theatre's tenth anniversary, Nora Theatre has mounted the play, with all of its timeliness intact and then some. It's also a production of the Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT. Interestingly, it's the second time Nora Theatre has presented this play (the first was only six years ago). The title refers to the x-ray diffraction image, known as photo 51, at King's College in London. The female biophysicist (an x-ray crystallographer, if you must know) was Rosalind Franklin (Stacy Fischer). The three male doctors were Francis Crick (John Tracey), James Watson (Michael Underhill) and Maurice Wilkins (Barlow Adamson). Donald Caspar (Jesse Hinson) and Raymond Gosling (Josh Gluck) also play supporting roles. All are integral to this presentation, with a special nod to “colleagues” Fisher and Adamson, the Greek chorus role by Gluck, and the appropriately energetic turn by Underhill.

John Tracey & Michael Underhill in "Photograph 51"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

The character of Franklin isn't softened in the play from what it would appear to have been in life, keeping her from standing out, what with the blatant misogyny that surrounded her and led to one of history's worst examples of unfairness and unconscionable chauvinism. Most frustrating is that we will never know whether Franklin would have made the leap to the explanation if she hadn't been marginalized; would she have taken the risk? As aptly Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw, with Scenic Design by Kristin Loeffler, Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, Lighting Design by Aja M. Jackson and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill, this current production doesn't attempt to answer this. (Those who have been paying attention might note that's an ironically all-female creative team; one might also ask why we noticed that). With a length of just ninety intermission-less minutes, the time seemed to fly by in this remarkable retelling of a critical moment in the herstory of medical science.

What doesn't fly by is the excruciating feeling that you've seen this sort of thing happen, either covertly or overtly, virtually every day of your life, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better anytime soon. In Franklin's time, she was habitually addressed as “Miss” rather than “Doctor”, and not even allowed to eat with her male colleagues. Times may have changed somewhat, but not completely. Given the current state of the disunion, maybe theater is our last resort. One can only hope that diversity overcomes perversity, and that our scientific and theatrical heroes continue, virtually every day, to look at lot more like us.



Cotuit's "Talented Woman": The Talons of Women

The title of the current production at Cotuit Center for the Arts (a.k.a. CCftA) is a double misnomer: A Talented Woman, a Sophisticated Comedy; it could also be a misleading one. The term “comedy”, it quickly proves, is more in the Shakespearean sense, that is, a play that doesn't end tragically. Whether the woman (or, more precisely, women) and a perceived “talent” belong in the same sentence depends on how broadly one views the strengths (and weaknesses) of the three female leads. The work, co-written by Lynda Sturner and Jim Dalglish, has already received accolades (notably the Winner of the New Playwright, New Plays Competition and the Kaplan Prize). Still, it's a stunning shift of tone for Dalglish fans (he's the author of such serious previous plays at CCftA as “Unsafe” and “Lines in the Sand”). The intergenerational relationships on view display a collective talent for dysfunction, and individually the three women share a talent for self-absorption that's far from pleasant, with a focus not on their talents so much as their bared talons.

The story features three women at various stages of life, living in New York City during the Great Recession: Maxie (co-author Sturner) is a grandmother, recently widowed, who faces imminent financial ruin; her daughter Victoria (Anna Botsford) a workaholic struggling to balance her personal and professional lives: and Maxie's precocious teenage granddaughter, Harmony (Orla Delaney), a name that is slyly ironic in this context. Also in the cast are Peter (Tony Travostino) as Maxie's man toy, Victoria's husband Greg (Beau Jackett) and corporate head-hunter Christopher (Ian Ryan). Some of the cleverest lines (“I've got you right where I want me”, “you have the maternal instincts of a Waring blender”) are actually given to the male performers, though their characters (except, eventually, Greg) aren't as well developed. The women each prove to have a particular talent: Maxie, for shopping beyond her means, Victoria for being compulsive, and Harmony for rebelliousness.

Since this work is Directed by Dalglish and stars Sturner in one of the key roles, there is an inherent danger in not being able to assess one's output objectively. Fortunately the route they have taken via readings and workshops has enabled them to hone their story to its current form. The complex Set Design by Glenn Bassett, Score and Sound Design by J. Hagenbuckle, Lighting Design by Greg Hamm and Costume Design by Tami Trask are all indicative of superb theatrical talent behind the scenes. Attention should also be paid to the Stage Crew who manage to pull off quite impressively the complicated scenic changes.

It's always a promising event when a regional company presents, as in this case, a world premiere of a playwright or playwrights (speaking of talent), and indicative of the ongoing commitment of CCftA to the local theatrical community.


ArtsEmerson's "An Inspector Calls": Dali-esque Deconstruction

The Cast of "An Inspector Calls"
(photo: Mark Douet)

ArtsEmerson's current production couldn't be more timely, what with its focus on the bottom line in business, and rampant selfishness in life. The fact that An Inspector Calls, by playwright J. B. Priestley, was written in 1945 doesn't detract from its timeless timeliness. Clocking in at just a hundred minutes, with no intermission, this work played fewer than a hundred performances in its original Broadway run in 1947, but a healthy 454 performances in 1994, earning four Tony Awards including for Best Revival of a Play and Best Director for Stephen Daldry, who repeats here in Boston with this London National Theatre version. He has spoken of the issue it deals with as society's collective responsibility without class or privilege or division. It's a cerebral head-spinner but a delightful one on literally several levels.

The Cast of "An Inspector Calls"
(photo: Mark Douet)

The play begins in the fall of 1912 as the prosperous Birling family, headed by factory owner and local politician Arthur (Jeff Harmer), as well as his wife Sybil (Christine Kavanagh), and son Eric (Hamish Riddle), all celebrate the engagement of daughter Sheila (Lianne Harvey) to Gerald Croft (Andrew Macklin), son of the owner of one of the Birling factory's competitors. After the women have left the dining room, Arthur expounds to Eric (who has a severe drinking problem) on the importance of self-reliance, and to Gerald about the future merging of the two families' factories, promising lower costs and higher profits, as well as his impending knighthood. All seems to be self-congratulatory egotism, when, unexpectedly, the doorbell rings. The maid Edna (Diana Payne-Myers) admits a man who introduces himself as Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan), who is investigating the suicide of a young working-class woman, Eva Smith. As the night unfolds, we learn that several family members knew the deceased: one recalls firing her the previous year for organizing a strike; another admits to having the woman sacked when Eva ridiculed her while she was waiting on her in a department store; two of them, when it is revealed that Eva changed her name to Daisy Renton, admit they each had an affair with her; and one other refused to aid the pregnant Eva when she begged her for help. Sheila returns her ring to Gerald. And the stage is set for a solution or several solutions, of sorts, to the mystery of exactly what did happen to the young woman.

Christine Kavanagh, Jeff Harmer & Lianne Harvey in "An Inspector Calls"
(photo: Mark Douet)

Or did it? Or will it? This Dali-esque deconstruction is all quite reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (delivered sort of upside down) with a manse-full cast of real characters, any one of whom, or all of whom, could conceivably be guilty. It takes some patience to let the story (or, rather, stories) unfold. Professional courtesy forbids any further references to this surreal (to quote no less than Winston Churchill) riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. One clue only: note the use of an indefinite article in the title. It's not the only red herring in this pool of existential mental gymnastics. The entire cast is superb, and the creative team should be familiar to those who saw the Broadway revival a quarter of a century ago: Daldry is once again brilliantly at the helm in this version. The creative team is led by two repeat contributions, Design by Ian MacNeil (a magnificent set) and Lighting by Rick Fisher; there are also Music by Stephen Warbeck, Costume Supervision by Caroline McCall and Sound Design by Sebastian Frost. As MacNeil has suggested elsewhere, we “go in as individuals, have a transformation, and leave as an audience”.

The Cast of "An Inspector Calls"
(photo: Mark Douet)

One would do well to sit back and enjoy the fun, now though March 24th, at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. Just tell them A Critic Sent You.

GBS's "Onegin": When Pushkin Comes to Shove

The Cast of "Onegin"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

It's always exciting to hear that a regional company is presenting the local premiere of a play or opera or musical, and so it was when Greater Boston Stage announced its production of Onegin, (based on the early nineteenth century poem by Alexander Pushkin and as well as Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin). Their current mounting of the work is in fact not just an area but also U.S. Premiere, previously produced in 2016 in Vancouver, Canada. It was all the more disappointing to discover that this creation (not a poetic play nor opera, but in fact a musical comedy) should never have been given a visa, as it is more of an undocumented minor work by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille. Their stated aim was “to celebrate love”, and as the regrettable lyrics from one of their songs put it, “to please...to charm...to break you open”. Where Pushkin utilized poetic powers, this is more of an in-your face experience, totally lacking in subtlety or nuance. And, you might well ask, a musical comedy about a duel?
As in the familiar works that are its sources, this is the story of the “bookish” Tatyana Larin (Sarah Pothier) who falls for Evgeni Onegin (Mark Linehan), a man not ready for commitment. Her mother Mme. Larin (Kerry A. Dowling) is happy with her other daughter Olga Larin (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) in her relationship with her fiancee Vladimir Lensky (Michael Jennings Mahoney), but when Onegin flirts shamelessly with Olga in front of Lensky, it leads to the famous duel and death, with Prince Gremin (Peter Adams) and Triquet (Christopher Chew) in supporting roles. Though there are some vocal demands outside the range of some of the cast, they seem to be having a fine time, even engaging (far too often and jarringly) with some audience members on stage. As very broadly Directed by Weylin Symes and Choreographed in music hall mode by Ilyse Robbins, with able Music Direction by Steve Bass (frequently on two keyboards at once), apt Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Costume Design by Deirdre Gerrard and Sound Design by John Stone, the technical elements (especially the Scenic Design by Katheryn Monthei) are what one has come to expect from this company. The cast is uniformly better than the material, with one glaring exception, to go nameless here, who Chews the scenery to a fare-thee-well, in a offensively swishy take that really borders on homophobia. Then again, Tatyana gets to express worthy feminist aims with her ferocious declaiming “I am not finished!”. So the politics of this piece are a bit muddled.

As Stephen Sondheim once put it, “the choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not”;
Greater Boston Stage should be applauded and supported for its risk-taking options. It's the unremarkable score, notably in such lyrics as the oft-repeated “I will die, I will die, as we all must die”, that inevitably sink this promising voyage. At several points the libretto asks the question: “look around, look around, look around, do you see someone worth dying for?”; since none of the characters are given any depth, the answer to that would be decidedly in the negative. Elsewhere, the lyrics to another one of their songs (indistinguishable from one another save for musicianship in the solo “Let Me Die” and some brief homages to Tchaikovsky) pray: “oh dear father up in heaven, release us from boredom”. Too late.


BLO's "Lucretia": What's In a Name?

David McFerrin & Duncan Rock in "The Rape of Lucretia"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The operas of Benjamin Britten can be accessible in some cases (such as Peter Grimes or Billy Budd), or they can be more challenging, such as Death in Venice . In the latter category, The Rape of Lucretia stands out, and it remains a rarely performed chamber opera by Britten. It is the current offering by Boston Lyric Opera, at the Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in South Boston. First performed at Glyndebourne in 1946, it's more along the lines of his Turn of the Screw in style and scope. Though the composer is widely considered a true agnostic in his personal life, it joins other Britten compositions that pose Christian themes. In this case, since the story takes place half a century before the birth of Christ, the prologue and epilogue of this opera might be viewed as drawing rather a long bow. Then there is that very troubling title, focusing as it does on the reality of rape, specifically the central event that has been treated for twenty-five hundred years (give or take a century) in countless artistic forms, including Botticelli's The Tragedy of Lucretia on display at our own Gardner Museum, a long Shakespearian poem, an unfinished play by Rousseau, and on and on. The program notes for this production correctly cite these as male-produced views, including this opera's libretto by Ronald Duncan (after a play by Andre Obey). There's a lot of testosterone involved in these treatments of sexual assault. This opera's very title, in full, is confrontational.

Kelley O'Connor & Margaret Lattimore in "The Rape of Lucretia"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The story is a fairly simple one, told in this chamber opera by two Christian “choruses” looking back to earlier pagan times, specifically when Rome was under the rule of the Etruscans, under whom the Empire has sunk into depravity. In a prologue, a male chorus (tenor Jesse Darden) sings the thoughts of male characters while a female chorus (soprano Antonia Tamer) sings those of the female characters. In an armed camp outside Rome, fighting off a Greek invasion as a diversion from the corruption in the City, the king's son Tarquinius (baritone Duncan Rock), Collatinus (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) and Junius (baritone David McFerrin) sing of the raping of Roman wives while their husbands are away at war. These include all but Collatinus' wife Lucretia (mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor); thus Junius goads Tarquinius into testing Lucretia's fidelity. She is busy spinning wool with her servants Bianca (mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore) and Lucia (mezzo-soprano Sara Womble) when Tarquinius arrives at her home late at night, determined to prove Lucretia unfaithful like all the other wives. Lucetia allows him out of courtesy to stay the night. After dark, he slips into Lucretia's bedroom, kisses her and proceeds to rape her. The next morning the servants are relieved to see that he has departed, but Lucretia enters seemingly devastated. She sends a message to Collatinus to return home, and he does so, with Junius. She, feeling shamed, stabs herself to death. Junius uses the suicide as a symbolic rationale for rebellion against the crown. The servants are left in despair at this moral depravity. But the choruses, singing that pain is given meaning and all sin is redeemed in the suffering of Christ, end the opera with a prayer for forgiveness.

Duncan Rock & Brandon Cedel in "The Rape of Lucretia"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Apart from the subject matter, this was a triumph for BLO. The cast was superb, from its menacing Rock (who has previously played the role of Tarquinius at Glyndebourne) to the portrayals by Cedel and McFerrin, all of them obviously having spent more than a bit of time at one of those Roman gymnasia. O'Connor was heartbreaking as the titular wife pining for her spouse to return (ah, abs sense makes the heart grow fonder). Giving very strong support, Lattimore (who almost steals the show) and Womble are unforgettable, and the bookending Darden and Tamer proved essential to the aims of the composer and librettist. Under the superb direction of Conductor David Angus, the chamber orchestra (especially harpist Ina Zdorovetchi) played quite wonderfully, and the Stage Direction by Sarna Lapine was crucial, as were the Set Design by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams, Lighting and Projection Design by Joey Moro and, pectorally speaking, the Costume Design by Robert Perdziola. The venue itself was a mixed bag; while acoustically sound, many of the sight lines were far from ideal, and the seats were almost distractingly uncomfortable. Perhaps they were intended to serve as metaphor for the discomfort one felt at the subject matter.

Troubling title or not, you may enjoy (if that's a proper term) this through Sunday March 17th.


Commonwealth Shakespeare's "Birdy": Avian Calling

Maxim Chumov & Spencer Hamp in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Adapting a novel for the stage has its inherent challenges, given the sheer number of characters and subplots in a typical written work, such as the well-intentioned novel The Color Purple which when staged nearly sank from the sheer weight of exposition. This was not the case, however, when playwright Naomi Wallace created her version of the book Birdy, the fledging work by William Wharton (the pen name for Albert Du Aime), who died a decade ago. The first novel by this psychologist at age fifty, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was lauded for its unusual format of long interior monologues (some rather undisciplined) and time shifts, which presented unique and seemingly impossible pitfalls for adaptation. Wallace first presented her play in London in 1997, and off-Broadway in 2003. (It had previously been adapted for a 1984 film version with then newcomers Nicholas Cage and Matthew Modine). This newly revised script, now being performed by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Babson College in Wellesley at the Carling-Sorenson Theater, is a revelation of just how a stream-of-consciousness source can molt into a full-fledged play of such brilliant creativity.

Maxim Chumov & Spencer Hamp in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Birdy in all of its iterations may be said to center on the fight or flight response. Childhood friends in a working class Philadelphia hood, young Al (Maxim Chumov) and young Birdy (Spencer Hamp) are an unlikely teen couple, given the former's macho focus on body building and chasing girls and the latter's ethereal, reclusive and bizarre growing obsession with birds, initially pigeons and ultimately canaries. Al deals with a violently abusive father, while the introverted Birdy has detached parents wallowing in poverty. It should be noted that four actors play the two friends at different stages before and after World War II, first as teenagers then as young men who cross paths again in the war, each with scars, one literally physically wounded, the other suffering from what would be called today PTSD.

Keith White, Will Taylor & Damon Singletary in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The older Al (Keith White) and older Birdy (Will Taylor) end up in the same psych ward in an army hospital in Kentucky where they encounter Dr. White (Steven Barkhimer) and nurse (and conscientious objector) Renaldi (Damon Singletary). Now in their twenties, Birdy no longer speaks, which confounds the professionals, leading to Al's being asked to help ground Birdy once again, or Birdy will be shipped out to an asylum. Their story, which has some homoerotic undertones (especially when Young Al coaches Young Birdy about making out with girls) asks the age-old question as to who is mad and who is sane, especially in times of war. Birdy's survival mechanism is not just to fly, but actually to become a bird; in this struggle he has evolved into an almost catatonic state which only Al might be able to penetrate.

Steven Barkhimer, Martin Chumov & Keith White in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Directed by Steven Maler, this cast of six is exemplary, especially Will Taylor as the older Birdy. Chumov and Hamp are terrific together, and White excels in the largest role. The amazingly eclectic Scenic Design by Clint Ramos (who also did the Costume Design), intricate Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, and perfectly coordinated Sound Design by J. Hagenbuckle all soar.

With its themes of love, friendship and war's destruction ( its message about war is especially contemporary), the play (as was the case with the novel and film), while sometimes dour, has much lightness and humor (such as a line straight from the novel: calling Birdy “most likely to suck seed”). It posits the power of friendship to heal. The playwright has quoted William Faulkner: “the past is never dead. It's not even past”. Her major change to the novel is the ending (as usual, no spoilers here), true to the spirit of the source, for a theatrical experience reminiscent of another remarkable play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Good news for fans of the novel (who are legion): the play will be here through March 17th.


ART's "Endlings": Be Careful What You Fish For

Jiehae Park & Wai Ching Ho in "Endlings"
(photo: Gretjien Helene)

Endlings, the current offering by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, is quite a theatrical event. Written by Celine Song and Directed by Sammi Cannold, featuring females in the lead roles, it fulfills yet another goal of ART to present opportunities both on stage and off for women in theater. For the record, the title refers to “a plural noun signifying the last known individual of a species”. This story takes place in Korea as well as the U.S. (and what could be more contemporary?). On the Korean Island of Man-Jae live three elderly haenyeos or sea women, who spend their days diving beneath the sea in order to harvest seafood. They are acutely aware that theirs is a vanishing world, as there are no heirs to this millenia-old way of life. They are in a literal as well as a figurative sense, spending their dying days diving. Their names are Han Sol (Wai Ching Ho), in her 90's, Go Min (Emily Kuroda), in her 80's, and Sook Ja (Jo Yang), in her 70's. But the ocean they inhabit will be revealed as more metaphor than play.

Emily Kuroda, Wai Ching Ho & Jo Yang in "Endlings"
(photo: Gretjien Helene)

The first act primarily consists of these women's verbal interactions, a good many of them on the level of television sitcoms, and an overly long monologue by Ha Young, a Korean-Canadian-American playwright, twice an immigrant (Jiehae Park), which takes place in Manhattan. She feels pressured to write about her identity. The challenge is how to do so without “selling her own skin”, as it were, but recognizing the inevitability of changing. But the author has other fish to fry; she's painfully aware, as stated in the program, that “real estate determines our possibilities”. To her, migration means one will never be the same again. When expressed with broad humor, it becomes “realty television”. In attempting to write as a non-white non-male, she's fighting a difficult battle against the tide.

The production (one hesitates to call it a play in any sense of the word) is visually stunning but emotionally uninvolving. Song writes beautifully when she has serious points to make, but it
meta-morphs into more of a performance piece than a play. She evidences raw power and fearless ferocity, albeit rife with aphorisms almost totally lacking in subtlety. For example, in the second act there occurs a sudden disjointed vaudeville-like routine by four White Stage Managers (Keith Michael Pinault, Matt DaSilva, Andy Paterson, and Mark Mauriello, the last also occasionally playing a Turtle), all speaking by using the word “white” in place of appropriate adjectives, nouns and verbs, making Song's point redundant. There are also several black-out scenes featuring a bit of banter with Young's White Husband (Miles G. Jackson) whose mysogynistic disdain is palpable, except to him. There are even a couple of brief scenes depicting oysters discussing the pain involved in overcoming a grain of sand and incidentally producing a pearl in the process. The playwright has a good deal to convey, but goes to the same well too often; in the end, it's rather like beating a dead fish.

Jo Yang in "Endlings"
(photo: Gretjien Helene)

The piece is superbly played by all of the cast, while the direction is inspired. And speaking of those visuals, the Costume Design by Linda Cho, Lighting Design by Bradley King, and Sound Design by Elisheba Ittoop are all crucial creative elements that enhance the story even as they threaten to overwhelm it. It's the eye-popping Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, however, that most vividly projects the bizarre imagination of this gifted playwright, as he utilizes a real water tank, gradually revealed by moving panels, to simulate the ocean depths.
The work needs kelp. Right now (through March 17th) it's more of a “beginling”. One hopes this writer keeps on imagining, keeps on fighting, and keeps on writing. In these days of rule by real estate moguls, maybe the playwright is offering more subtlety than is first apparent. If one dives beneath the surface of her work, there is definitely a gestating pearl. If only we will allow her to exist.

Boston Symphony's "Stabat Mater": Dolorosa

Andris Nelsons conducts Rachel Willis-Sorensen, Violeta Urmana, Dmytro & Matthew Rose in "Stabat Mater"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

It's quite fitting that, as next Tuesday is Mardi Gras, the day before the beginning of Lent, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's program last night (with an encore performance set for tonight) consisted of Stabat Mater by Antonin Dvorak. It was also fitting that the program began with an homage to Andre Previn, composer, conductor and pianist, who died this past Thursday in his ninetieth year. As their lovely tribute to Previn, Andris Nelsons conducted the BSO in a performance of Elgar's “Nimrod” from his Enigma Variations. It served both as a remembrance of Previn's career as well as an appropriate prelude to the Dvorak.

The Chorus & Soloists in "Stabat Mater"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

1875 was a prolific year for the composer, including his Fifth Symphony, E major string serenade, three major chamber pieces, a five act grand opera (Vanda), and the initial work on his Stabat Mater. It was also the year in which the composer and his wife Anna lost all three of their young children (including an infant daughter), which may well be reflected in this work. The piece received its first public performance in 1880 in Prague, just before Christmas, a strange date to choose for its world premiere given its clear Passiontide content. Based on a medieval liturgical text, a source used by other composers, it consists of ten movements with varying solos, duets and quartets, performed in this production by soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen (filling in for Kristine Opolais who recently withdrew from this commitment), mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana (who performed in last week's Suor Angelica as the Princess), tenor Dmytro Popov, and bass Matthew Rose (a last minute replacement for the ailing Ain Anger), with participation from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (under the directon of James Burton).

There are ten parts in this austere piece, beginning with a lengthy movement sung by a quartet and chorus depicting Christ's sorrowful mother standing at the foot of the cross (Stabat mater dolorosa). The second movement features the chorus at the crucifixion scene questioning who would not weep at such a scene. The next choral participation concerns one's personal role, standing alongside the mother. Then there is a bass solo with chorus grieving Christ's death with one's heart. The fifth movement is a Bach-like Baroque expression by the chorus begging to turn their hearts to Christ and the sorrowful mother. There follows a chorale-like hymn for tenor and male chorus at the foot of the bitter tree. The seventh part is a chorus lifting their hearts, while the eighth is a duet for soprano and tenor about love enduring pain. The penultimate movement is an aria for solo alto pleading for being shielded on the Day of Judgment; it was a chance for Urmana to shine (as she did a week ago in the orchestra's performance of Suor Angelica as the evil Princess). The last movement, sung by the quartet and chorus that their souls may be swiftly flying to heaven, ends quietly with the orchestra.

The Ovation for the BSO performance of "Stabat Mater"
(photo: Winslow Townson)

A ninety minute intermission-less production, the performance went by swiftly, a considerable achievement given that the work can often be performed too slowly. Conductor Andris Nelsons was in fine form, as was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (conducted by James Burton). They may not have equaled its premiere, played with an enlarged orchestra and almost a thousand voices in the chorus, but it was extraordinarily moving, whatever one's faith. The other soloists, Willis-Sorensen, Popov and Rose, were also a treat to hear, and it was a joy to hear Rose as he rose to the occasion with very short notice.
This was surely a moving experience for those whose religious beliefs are echoed in the piece, as well as on a purely secular musical level. In either case, it was an entirely appropriate musical choice in mood and musings with its gentle feeling of consolation.