Russian author Anton Chekhov was not an operatic sort of fellow. A merciless realist who showed life with all its blemishes and wrinkles, he wrote stories and plays populated by ordinary folks leading boring lives in dreary provincial towns. Glamour is in sadly short supply. Not exactly the stuff of “Tosca” or “La Traviata.”
But that hasn’t prevented a few adventurous contemporary composers from fashioning operas based on Chekhov’s fiction. Among the most successful are two comic one-acts by American composer Dominick Argento, “A Water Bird Talk” and “The Boor.” On Sunday afternoon, Monadnock Music shrewdly staged them as a double bill, drawing upon the resources of four experienced and versatile singer-actors: Aaron Engebreth, Heather Buck, James Maddalena, and Frank Kelley. Gil Rose, the company’s artistic director, conducted and devised the simple and generally effective staging.
Argento wrote the libretto for “A Water Bird Talk” himself, combining Chekhov’s “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” with J.J Audubon’s “The Birds of America” into a monodrama for tenor or baritone (Engebreth). Our hapless and henpecked antihero delivers a lecture to an unseen audience, pouring all the passion frustrated in his loveless marriage into descriptions of various birds whose traits mirror his own meek personality.
Rose staged the scene with minimal but visually striking clothes and props, especially the cheap madras plaid jacket, saddle shoes, and horn-rim glasses worn by the gentleman lecturer. Engebreth captured the character’s tragicomic pathos, yearning, and awkwardness both with his light, ringing tenor and a humorous array of nervous facial tics and vocal imitations. The accompanying chamber ensemble of 12 musicians delivered the rapidly changing score (full of luminous birdcalls) with accuracy and sensitivity to the soloist.
“A Water Bird Talk” and “The Boor”
Chekhov has been accused of misogyny, and neither do females fare well in Argento’s adaptations. In “The Boor,” the vain and ostentatiously grieving widow Tamara makes easy prey for a neighboring landowner. The score uses three singers (soprano, baritone, and tenor) with a Mozartian chamber orchestra that pokes fun at Mozart, Puccini, and romantic operatic cliches, but also plays extensive lyrical passages. As Tamara, Buck shifted between grand lady and coquette with aplomb. Her numerous ensembles with Maddalena (as the cocky landowner) and with Kelley (as the charmingly wobbly elderly servant) crackled with emotional and musical tension. All three emerged as flawed but oh-so-human, just as Chekhov intended.