Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Everything opera should be

Time is short today, but I had to put in a quick note about Opera Boston's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, which I caught at its final performance last night. It's been a rough year for Opera Boston - Ewa Podleś phoned in Tancredi, and Madame Whitesnake turned out to be a bust - so it was wonderful to see their season end on a note higher than anyone could have anticipated. La Grande-Duchesse, Offenbach's lightly sardonic operetta on the intersection of love and war, turned out to be not only one of the best productions of the year, but one of the best opera productions seen in Boston in many a year, and certainly the best thing I've ever seen Opera Boston do.

It wasn't hard to see why. Stephanie Blythe, a mainstay at the Met and on opera stages around the world, was essaying for Opera Boston one of her signature roles, and it was apparent that not only had the company put its best foot forward for the biggest star it had ever entertained, but that much of the production had been styled directly for her (by director David Kneuss of the Met). Which was all to the good. For not only was Ms. Blythe in fine vocal form, in a role which matches her range and (gorgeously rich) timbre perfectly, but theatrically (and comedically) she was also at a peak that most professional actresses would envy. Her performance was, simply put, perfection in every way - it was everything opera should be.

What's more, for once Opera Boston left its taste for intellectualism and ascetic sets at the door - the sets and costumes for La Grande-Duchesse were beautifully rendered and nearly opulent, and often cohered (as at the top of the second act) into glorious stage pictures. More, please! And Ms. Blythe was not the only thing worth listening to, either - although there was some vocal variability in the cast. Scott Ramsay's tenor was far too thin to stand up to Ms. Blythe's redolent glories, and James Maddalena sounded a bit rough, at least on the last night. But there was lovely singing from soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer and baritone Lee Gregory (above left, with Blythe), and both proved to be gifted comics as well. Although actually everyone in the cast - including the hard-working chorus - was irresistibly funny and seemingly up for any kind of hijinx.

It's true that at three hours, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, despite all this onstage inspiration (and lively playing down in the pit), is almost too much of a good thing. But you also couldn't blame everyone for soldiering on with the fluff, as they were having so much fun doing it. By the time the curtain fell, it was hard not to feel that some new standard had been set for local opera production.