The Odyssey Opera presents Sullivan’s The Zoo and Walton’s The Bear

Nelida Nassar   06.29.2015

This month the Odyssey Opera is presenting several little-known British operas as part of an ongoing project of reviving neglected repertory, one that is becoming an established part of the Boston opera scene. This year’s offering, The British Invasion, includes Sir Arthur Sullivan’s frivolous The Zoo and William Walton’s farce The Bear.

The Zoo, a 40-minute one-act comic opera, without spoken dialogue, with music by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by B. C. Stephenson, was written under the pen name of Bolton Rowe. It premiered on 5 June 1875 at the St. James’s Theatre in London, concluding its run five weeks later, on 9 July 1875, at the Haymarket Theatre. There were brief revivals in late 1875, and again in 1879, before the opera was shelved. The score was not published in Sullivan’s lifetime, and it lay dormant until Terence Rees purchased the composer’s autograph at auction in 1966 and arranged for its publication.

The farcical story, involving two pairs of lovers, takes place at the London Zoo. The first couple consists of the young chemist Aesculapius Carboy (sang by Daniel Shirley) and his beloved, Laetitia Grinder (Chelsea Betty). He tries to hang himself since he believes that he has poisoned her by mixing up her father’s prescription with peppermint that he had meant to give her. The other couple is composed of a nobleman, Duke Thomas Brown (Colin Levin), who goes to the zoo to woo Eliza Smith (Sadie Gregg), who sells snacks and refreshments there. He tries to impress her by buying and eating all of the food. The story is told through a series of love duets, all sung movingly by two the couples and suitably embellished by the chorus. To help Carboy gain Grinder’s consent to marriage, the Duke provides a modest income to Laetitia’s father and a more substantial one to Carboy, thus helping himself to win Smith’s hand at the same. Everything ends happily with a melodic waltz.

Costume designer Amanda Mijica created brilliant garments for the chorus, based on prints of the zoo’s animals. The stage design by Stephen Dobay is an interpretation of a large painting of the London Zoo. The orchestra performed admirably under the direction of James Blachly, who found just the right pace for the work. It is unlikely that it will ever enjoy the huge number of performances that Sullivan’s works with Gilbert regularly receive. However, historically it is revealing as a curtain raiser to their shorter operas. Triple-bills of Sullivan’s three one-act operas have also proved successful.

Although Sullivan’s piece is first and foremost a light, humorous work devised to entertain a mostly middle-class audience, it is characterized by a certain amount of political and social satire. Beyond serving up merry and pleasant songs that remain part and parcel of the English cultural heritage, it directs a number of shafts against contemporary social and political institutions (especially the House of Lords and the class system) that have lost none of their piquancy or even relevance for today’s audience. Odyssey Opera has created a version that flawlessly depicts both these sides of The Zoo.

Walton’s 45-minute The Bear followed a brief intermission. A one-act opera based on a comic story by Chekhov called “The Boor,” it was originally commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, the brainchild of the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874–1951), famous for his leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Foundation was established in 1942, and by the time Walton was approached as a potential composer, its support was responsible for works by Bartók, Copland, and Messiaen, and its opera commissions included Benjamin Britten’s renowned Peter Grimes and Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. The Foundation had originally requested an orchestral work, but Walton transformed it into an opera.

Paul Dehn was the perfect choice for the librettist; as he had long been connected with the English theatre and had penned, among other things, the libretto for Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement and the lyrics for the films Moulin Rouge and The Innocents. He also scripted Goldfinger and The Taming of the Shrew. A highly skillful writer, he had ample experience in the adaptation of complicated literary works and a good understanding of dramatic pacing. Together, Dehn and Walton succeeded in creating a witty and compact piece.

As it opens, a young widow, Madam Popova (mezzo-soprano Jana Baty), is still wearing mourning black and refusing all social engagements, or even a ride outdoors around her estate since the death of her husband almost a year earlier, despite the urging of her servant Luka (bass-baritone, Simon Dyer) that she starts to return to life. She is confronted by Grigory Stepanovich Smirnov (baritone, Stephen Salters), ‘landowner and retired lieutenant of artillery,’ who has come to claim a debt of thirteen hundred roubles owed to him by her late husband, money he had borrowed for oats to feed his favorite horse Toby. Luka, a character presenting a mixture of comic and censorious traits, shows him into the drawing room. While Smirnov is trying to extract the money from Popova, he falls in love with her; he is attracted not only by her good looks, but also by her spirited response to his appalling manners and financial demands, behavior that culminates in her challenging him to a duel. Popova’s final capitulation, witnessed by Luka and two mute figures, the Cook and the Groom, is encapsulated in her last remark: ‘tell the groom not to give Toby any oats at all today.’ She now no longer needs to keep her husband’s memory alive by looking after his horse.

Baty, Salters and Dyer gave great performances filled with musical jokes and good-humored touches in the acting. Baty, whose vocal ability turned a rather lightweight role into one tinged with a measure of gravitas, exuded immense likeability and down-to-earth charm. Her voluptuous voice, dusky and scintillating, radiated a broad array of tone colors. Salters’s luminous timber, flickering vibrato, and eloquent diction and phrasing beautifully conveyed Smirnov’s wit. Dyer’s superb flair for comedy gave us a very funny Luka: his flawless diction and booming voice delivered great comic flourish.

The appropriately simple stage setting, the intelligent casting, Gil Rose’s supple conducting and the skillful singers of the Odyssey Opera all joined together to produce many indelible and beautiful musical moments. In particular, we may note that the orchestra, while modest in size, ably responded to the score’s many intricate demands, especially regarding coordination with the action on stage.

Odyssey Opera provided a wonderful evening’s entertainment with this cleverly selected and splendidly presented program. From start to finish the performers held the spectators’ attention with highly engaging songs and the stories woven between them in these two charming operas. The curtain descended to an outburst of enthusiastic cheers and warm applause.

Friday, May 24, 2015 at 7.30 p.m.
Sunday, May 24, 2015 at 3.00 p.m.
Boston University Theatre
264 Huntington Avenue, Boston

 

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