An American First


(…) Pacinis  Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra was commissioned by the Prince of Cuto, who had taken over the management of the Teatro Carolino in Palermo.  Pacini wanted a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, author of Lucia and Trovatore among many others, but Cammarano was too busy, and the choice fell on Maria, which Tarantini had written a few years earlier.  The opera was composed in 23 days, and premiered to great acclaim on 11 February, 1843.  Pacini was called on stage 43 times and carried home in a torchlight parade, however the initial success of the opera was not to be repeated.  Subsequent productions in Italy never measured up to the premiere, and the work scarcely travelled out of Italy.  And so it lay, a dusty archived score until Opera Rara revived it at the 1983 Camden festival and subsequently gave it a studio recording (ORC15) in 1996.  It was also performed in Giessen, Germany, in 2012 (a performance which I saw).  Now Boston’s Odyssey Opera has revived it for two performances (Nov. 1 and 3, 2019) in a complete, staged, performance directed by Steve Maler and conducted by Gil Rose.

Maler’s production is fairly straight forward and has the virtue of making the confusing plot fairly clear (with the help of English surtitles).  Whether for budgetary or philosophical reasons, he and Set Designer Jeffrey Allen Petersen place the action in an abstract (“metaphorical”) set with a slatted backdrop and a huge moon in the first act, which takes place at night on the banks of the Thames.  (…) More grey slats descend to form the two prison cells in Act III, and minimalist furniture is used when needed. (…) The mixing of costume periods has become a cliché in opera production, and it always appears to me as if someone has raided the thrift store basement.  At least they weren’t the absurd, contrary-to-type costumes of the Giessen production, which conflicted with the story at every turn.  In Boston, lighting by Jorge Arroyo was effective.

With one exception, Odyssey Opera’s cast consisted of an impressive array of young singers near the start of their careers.  The role of Maria was taken by Amy Shoremount-Obra, a soprano of Wagnerian capacity.  In fact she had just won a 2018 competition in the Wagner division, and it showed.  She is a big woman with a big, powerful voice, and yet she handled the coloratura quite well, except perhaps for some of the trills.  More important, she had plenty of breath for the long phrases of the cantilenas.  In contrast, the diminutive Alisa Jordheim, movingly sang Clotilde.  Pacini had given the original Clotilde, Teresa Merli-Clerici, a big scena of her own since she was the Prince of Cuto’s mistress, and Ms. Jordheim delivered it beautifully in Act III.  She was the best of the singers at acting too, and in spite of her small stature, her voice is big—big enough to compete and blend with Ms. Shoremount-Obra in the duets, which are one of the crowning joys of bel canto opera.  Pacini wrote the role of Fenimoore for Nicola Ivanoff, a tenor with a very high tessitura, and the vocal writing shows it, often reaching up to high Cs.  Opera Odyssey found a young tenor who could do it in Kameron Lopreore, a New Orleans native, who will perform there in Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans in February, 2020.  His barcarolle, early in the opera (“Quando assisa a me d’accanto”) and his duets were spot on.  Pacini gave the tenor a very difficult aria in the last act, obviously modeled after Roberto Devereux’ prison aria in Donizetti’s opera, and even Ivanoff had trouble with it.  Mr. Lopreore made it thorough this difficult, high, soft piece (“M’amò qual aman gli angeli”) with honor, although his voice seemed a bit tired in those altitudes.  His bouncy cabaletta proved to be well sung: “Ancor d’un sogno roseo”).  Young baritone Leroy Davis sang Ernesto very well indeed.  Although he looked as young (or younger than) his Clotilde (he is supposed to be much older), he was an exciting singer to listen to.  The one veteran in the cast was James Demler as Gualtiero Churchill.  He has numerous credits with Opera Odyssey (including Pietro de Wisants in L’assedio di Calais in 2017) and elsewhere.  As always, his singing was very fine.

Gil Rose is a four-square kind of conductor and he is not a show-off in the pit, but he keeps things going in an agreeable way.  He also rises to the excitement of the climaxes.  Musical preparation was, in fact, quite high.  The orchestra consisted of 36 players, and kudos must go to the harpist, Ina Zdorovetchi, who has a lot to do in this opera.  The 16 person chorus was a little small, but they managed well.

We saw performances on Nov. 1 and 3.  The second performance showed notable improvement.  The cast seemed more relaxed, acting was better, and the audience, sparse on Friday night, was much fuller and more enthusiastic on Sunday.  Opera Odyssey’s “Tudor” season continues with the world premiere of Arnold Rosner’s The Chronicle of Nine, Britten’s Gloriana, Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra and Edward German’s Merrie England.  

I am indebted to the fine and thorough essay on the opera by Jeremy Commons, which initially appeared in the Donizetti Society Journal, 6 (1988) and was updated and reprinted for the booklet accompanying the Opera Rara recording (Fotos: Pacinis „Maria Regina d´Inghilterra“ an der  Boston Odyssey Opera;  © Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films). Charles Jernigan