Let me first say that it's wonderful that Boston has two genuinely thriving opera companies - Boston Lyric Opera, which leans toward standards, and Opera Boston, which generally programs rarities, and I wish both well. If I often sound skeptical about the praise lavished on Opera Boston, it's because they seem to have a patron saint in former Globe critic Richard Dyer, who writes their program notes (and who long belittled Boston Lyric Opera while carrying the torch for Sarah Caldwell, who was basically a lost cause). And current Globe critic Jeremy Eichler, of course, has taste that not-so-mysteriously matches Dyer's, while Keith Powers over at the Herald gushes so much over Opera Boston that he makes Eichler's promotional pieces seem staid. And it's worth mentioning that Opera Boston's conductor, Gil Rose, is firmly embedded in the local musical hierarchy in an interesting way, as his Boston Modern Orchestra Project serves as a kind of vanity performance venue for local music professors (who sponsor concerts of their own works). It's true there's good reason to applaud Opera Boston for programming all that rarely-heard repertoire; still, if all these connections sound rather cozy - well, they are; but certainly no cozier than Harvard's pull with the Globe, say. Local critical writing has always been, and will always be, a patchwork of hidden alliances, agendas and allegiances; there's a Harvard mafia, there's a gay mafia - and of course there's always the Mafia mafia, too. That's life.
But back to The Bartered Bride (at left), another rarity which Opera Boston presents this weekend through Tuesday, and which is one of the strongest productions I've seen them give. It's certainly more enjoyable than their production of The Nose, which I suppose was nothing to sneeze at, but with which, to mix my metaphors, they had clearly bitten off more than they could chew (its local reputation strikes me as nearly delusional). There are, however, still the vocal gaps in The Bartered Bride that one expects from Opera Boston; the tenor, who has a beautiful timbre in his middle range, thins out abruptly further up (and just barely hits his top notes), and the soprano, who likewise has a bold, golden tone in general, can get a little shrill when she's not careful (both above left). Sometimes this troupe lands a major talent like Dawn Upshaw - next season they're promising Ewa Podleś - but in general they haven't broken into the vocal tier from which Boston Lyric Opera casts.
And beyond the vocals, there were other problems. The "woodcut" set seemed at first outright ugly (again, par for the Opera Boston course) - although to be fair, it came together for the surreal circus scenes, with the help of some abstract set-pieces. And the production was studded with odd choices - its relocation to the American Midwest seemed to half-connect to American musical comedy, but didn't really yield any new insights into the material (in a nod to the local academy, it was set in Stillville, Iowa, where the professors know Dvořák spent a summer). Meanwhile the costumes seemed to float somewhere between the early 70's and the 30's. The "folk dancing" looked like Martha Graham's idea of a polka (a chunk of it, however, was replaced with a cute little baseball game), and sometimes the chorus, in a burst of ancestral heartiness, switched from English to Czech (when, in what I assume was a kind of in-joke, the super-titles switched to Czech, too!).
On the plus side, there was the energetic score, which is always clever and appealing, rather like the show's protagonist (although unfortunately it contains no truly great arias), and conductor Rose did well by it. The opera didn't quite sound lusty, as it probably should, but it was always spirited and crisp, and from the opening notes of the famous overture, the orchestra played with speed and cohesive attack. Plus the English translation, by Tony Harrison, was truly witty, and the chorus sang with brio, and generally sounded terrific.
And there's certainly at least one reason to seek out this production: Keith Jameson's performance as the hapless Vašek, the milquetoast whose father nearly manages to purchase for him the bride in question. The role is a comic jewel, but some of its material - Vašek's stutter, for instance - can turn ugly in the wrong hands. Luckily, Jameson (at left) was not just self-deprecating but utterly endearing, and his scenes were a delight, easily the high points of the production. Even more striking was that soprano Jennifer Aylmer, who hadn't been all that convincing in bride Mařenka's romantic scenes, found her feet in her duets with Jameson, and suddenly morphed into a crack comedienne. Their long scene together was comic opera heaven.
There was another nice, seedily comic turn from Frank Kelley as the ringmaster of the circus that comes to town (ably impersonated here by Boston Conservatory dancers), and a lovely vocal performance from Sara Heaton as the gypsy Esmeralda (although Ms. Heaton needs to sing out a bit). As the wedding broker Kecal, Boston favorite James Maddalena proved he had not lost his sense of comic timing, but alas, his voice isn't what it used to be, and was a bit threadbare here and there. And the opera lost its way again when it re-focused on its central couple; tenor Patrick Miller's happy handsomeness was just too bland to hold our interest, and he and Aylmer never generated the romantic feeling that would make the "betrayal" at the plot's center dramatically compelling. The witty flourishes provided by director Daniel Pelzig couldn't really compensate for this. On the other hand, Keith Jameson alone may be worth the price of admission. There's still one more performance, on Tuesday night, for you to decide for yourself.