These days good news from the opera world, in Boston in particular, is not to be taken for granted. So it’s a pleasure to report that a Wagnerian-scaled serving of it arrived this past weekend with the company debut of Odyssey Opera.
Less than two years since the closure of Opera Boston, this new venture took wing on Sunday afternoon in Jordan Hall with a highly ambitious first offering: the Boston premiere of Wagner’s early opera “Rienzi,” performed in a concert version that clocked in at just under seven hours (including a two-hour break for dinner). On the podium was the indefatigable Gil Rose, Odyssey’s general and artistic director.
For the moment, Odyssey Opera has not disclosed details of its future performance plans, except to say that its next production will be a staged one, and that it will take place sometime this spring. Also unclear is its intended structure (Sunday’s concert was underwritten by former Opera Boston board member Randolph Fuller, now Odyssey’s primary backer). What Rose has made clear is the company’s progressive mission.
The enormous cost of staging live productions consigns many opera companies to cycling through a small list of popular favorites, with lesser-known works being programmed only around the edges, if at all. But in this case, Odyssey Opera’s entire raison d’etre appears to be shedding light on works at the margins: overlooked early and avant-garde operas, the major operas of forgotten composers, and the neglected operas by composers we otherwise know well.
In this last vein, it would be hard to find a more enterprising point of departure than Wagner’s third opera, the rarely spotted “Rienzi.” In it he sought to create something even grander than the French grand opera style, and his score is stuffed to overflowing with processions, military marches, music for pantomime and dance, and much more. The Dresden premiere in 1842 turned out to be the composer’s first major success (“the whole city was in uproar,” as he put it) though in later years he distanced himself from “Rienzi” as an unrepresentative early work.
It’s true that, with its sparkling lines and lavish Italianate writing, “Rienzi” has little of the veiled mystery and latent eroticism of the composer’s later touchstone scores, or what Cocteau summarized as “the thick lightning-pierced fog of Bayreuth.” But “Rienzi” has still earned champions on its own terms, with its luxurious sense of spectacle and its tantalizing hints of the composer’s future directions. The plot tells of the title character’s efforts to unite a 14th-century Rome, riven by the rivalry of two noble families. He is initially successful until the mob of Romans, steered by forces beyond his control, turns on him. Rienzi ultimately dies alongside his loyal sister Irene, engulfed in the flames that have consumed the capitol.
The work’s vocal writing is famously taxing, especially in its title role. For the occasion Odyssey Opera tapped the Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt, who acquitted himself honorably, showing signs of strain in Act 3, but overall pacing himself to deliver, if not a complete vocal and dramatic portrait, then at least five hours of valiant and well-shaped singing, which is no small feat. And he stepped up to eloquently address the role’s biggest challenge, Rienzi’s moving prayer that begins the final act, floating this supplicatory music with delicacy and poise.
On Sunday, Margaret Jane Wray distinguished herself in the trouser role of Adriano Colonna, singing with abundant strength, an idiomatic grasp of style, and appealingly dusky colorings. Her character is bitterly torn between family loyalty and love for Rienzi’s sister Irene. That role was sung by Elisabete Matos with a soprano cuttingly powerful enough to slice through anything in its path, including the enormous orchestra at full cry. Stephen Salters was excellent as the snarling nobleman Steffano Colonna, who in his hatred of Rienzi finds common cause with his rival, Paolo Orsini (sung by David Kravitz, in fine voice). Elsewhere in the cast, Ethan Bremner, Robert Honeysucker, and Kristopher Irmiter all sang capably over long distances, and Christina English and Frank Kelley rounded out the group.
The Boston-area freelancers who made up the Odyssey Opera Orchestra pulled together impressively for their maiden ensemble voyage, playing with palpable commitment and tonal warmth throughout the evening. For his part, Rose stayed focused on the long-distance journey, favoring brisk tempos and placing a premium on broad efficiency and sweep. For Wagner’s off-stage ensembles, he dispatched instrumentalists and singers into the balconies, at times generating a flood of sound that seemed to saturate every inch of Jordan Hall.
For the occasion, Odyssey Opera also managed to field an entirely volunteer chorus (Harris Ipock, chorus master) of some 70 voices, whose unflagging energy was at the heart of this performance. (Adding luster to the choral singing was the fine Lorelei Ensemble.) Collectively, the Odyssey forces delivered a memorable Boston premiere, and also, as judged by the cheering crowd at the night’s end, generated a healthy quotient of good will as the project embarks on its first year. However long it lasts, and whether it ultimately resembles a traditional company or a protean opera lab, Odyssey is off to an auspicious start. One hopes it will, simply put, broaden the options out there for the city’s musical public. There is already a lot of interest in seeing what comes next.