There is a temptation to interpret any opera in terms of opera itself; no art form is more self-aware. Odyssey Opera’s double bill of one-singer, one-act operas, Dominick Argento’s “Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night” and “A Water Bird Talk,” presented over the weekend in Suffolk University's compact Modern Theatre — conductor Gil Rose's fledgling organization still experimenting with size and format and venue — was nominally about marriage: a sin of omission in the former, of commission in the latter. But both also invited consideration of opera’s artifice and essence.
Among contemporary composers, Argento is possibly the most naturally operatic, fluently conversing with the form’s history. In expanding the narrative of Miss Havisham — the long-ago jilted bride from Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” shut up in her room, still in her wedding gown — he and librettist John Olon-Scrymgeour turned to that age-old set piece, the mad scene. Havisham’s nostalgia for lost hope is intertwined with the music’s nostalgia for its own genre. The piece is an expertly-assembled anthology of operatic tropes of insanity: tonal harmonies as cold comfort, manic coloratura laughter, a virtuoso cadenza at delusion’s height. Olon-Scrymgeour and Argento add one more layer of reference, having Havisham explicitly admit her own madness: a role within the role.
The role is choice and challenging. Soprano Heather Buck was equal to the task, sustaining the 40-minute stretch with impressive stamina and stage presence. Rose’s stage direction was straightforward; his conducting of the 16-player ensemble yielded a concentration of atmospheric effect. Linda O’Brien’s lighting made deft shifts of mood; Callie Chapman’s video projections were less subtle (a silent-movie-literal montage of spinning-hand clocks, for instance), but then again, the piece itself often paints in primary colors. It is an assertively operatic opera.
“A Water Bird Talk” was more unpredictable. Loosely adapted by Argento from a Chekhov play, the piece takes the form of an ornithological lecture in which the lecturer (baritone Aaron Engebreth, in superb voice and absolutely committed character) compulsively reveals his own weaknesses, his unhappiness at the hands of his domineering wife and daughters, his collapsed ambition.
Like “Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night,” “A Water Bird Talk” layers old-fashioned lyricism with more unsettled, modernist sounds, but it is less clear which is the lens and which is the smudge. And, where “Miss Havisham” tapped opera’s capacity for tragic expression, “A Water Bird Talk” leveraged opera’s inherent absurdity. The character’s suffering is inseparable from his essential ridiculousness, a duality kept in constant suspension by the score — expressively realized by Rose and the players —and Engebreth’s performance.
In fact, reversing opera’s normal polarities, the piece was most affecting when drama and music turned inward. It captured Chekhov’s idiosyncratic dramatic mood: despair as enervated comedy. But it, too, made a point about opera. In the purest moment of pathos, the orchestra wove a semi-improvised avian web while Engebreth slumped silently in a chair. Opera’s greatest tragedy, it seemed, would be to stop singing altogether.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.