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28 April 2014

REVIEW: Fabled Azzurina Arrives as The Little Blue One

by Vance R. Koven (Boston Musical Intelligencer)

The story of a person who disappears is a recurring one in folk mythology (and, indeed, in recorded history). Scottish composer Judith Weir’s popular Distance and Enchantment explores this theme with tales from several cultures. The opera The Little Blue Oneby composer Dominick DiOrio and librettist Meghan Guidry, commissioned by Juventas New Music Ensemble and given its premiere run that concluded on April 26 at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Plaza Theater, takes as its starting point the fable of Azzurina (whose name gives the work its somewhat clumsily translated title), about an albino girl whose hair was dyed blue and kept within the walls of her father’s castle. We don’t know what version of the fable Guidry used—sadly it didn’t make it into Italo Calvino’s magisterial collection of Italian folk tales—but one can get an idea of it from this synopsis.

In Guidry’s hands the story becomes a psychodrama, wherein the major characters—her father, here called Pietro (Ryne Cherry, baritone, with great dramatic intensity and rock-solid intonation), a guard, Gennaro (Joshua Collier, tenor, dramatically subtle and vocally powerful and accurate), and the mysterious Arrangiarsia, perhaps a fairy (Dad hates those red fairies—hat tip to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death?), perhaps Azzurina’s fantasy creation—write on Azzurina’s seemingly blank slate their own desires and fears. Azzurina (soprano Kim Lamoureux, about whom more below) struggles to find her own personhood and, at 13, to navigate the shoals of emerging maturity. Naturally, this being opera, it all ends in tears: having persuaded Arrangiarsia (brilliantly sung by coloratura Maggie Finnegan) to persuade her to run away in Act III, Azzurina vanishes but returns as a ghostly voice to take up her role as the resident spirit of the house.

DiOrio, whose work Juventas has frequently performed, is a neo-tonalist whose idiom, while cognizant of the past century or so (there were some charming chromatic twists, especially noticeable in the purely instrumental numbers, and a nice bitonal dance number), seems most comfortable here in the chromatically inflected lyricism of, say, Ferrucio Busoni, with some clear nods to Samuel Barber’s Vanessa(fewer hints, curiously, of Dominick Argento, who also plied these waters). He also is a fan of old-style number opera, so that this work sports not only an actual overture, but delineated arias, recitatives, and so forth. It is a perhaps ironic touch that this 1912-style music is scored for an expanded Pierrot ensemble, with the violin and viola parts played by separate players and with percussion added. This ensemble, by the way, comprising Adam Eccleston, flute, Wolcott Humphrey, clarinet, Olga Patramanskaya, violin, Drew Ricciardi, viola, Jonathan Heyward, cello, Brendon Shapiro, piano, and Danielle Fortner, percussion, were superb in performance, superbly conducted by Juventas (and the opera’s) Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya. It is an unfortunate aspect of the theater that the band had to be at the back of the stage, with Yankovskaya therefore conducting with her back to the singers. Luckily nothing went awry, but some other arrangement of personnel might be thought of if Juventas returns to this space.

The staging, directed by Erin Huelskamp, was simple and straightforward; although the story, if one goes by the actual legend, takes place in 1375 (some say 1365, but who’s counting?), the singers were given modern dress, more or less, while the spare set was arguably suggestive of the 14th century. No doubt this was a deliberate time warp, but seeing Gennaro in modern fatigues (we never really know just who he is from the libretto; a better synopsis in the program would have helped here, as with many other details of the setting, story and characterizations).

As new operas go, this one was not half-bad, with the slightly beefed-up chamber scale of it a very promising pointer to the future of opera itself. The score, while perhaps a little too archly retro (psychodramas really do need some musical spicing up), contains some terrific music, especially in the arias for Gennaro and Arrangiarsia and the big wig-out scene for Pietro. DiOrio has written some charming and only slightly anachronistic neo-Handelianisms for the pre-banquet scene (oh, did we mention? The feast commemorating the vernal equinox was the focus of the “action,” also not well explained), and for the banquet itself there was either a genuine or convincingly mock Renaissance dance, sung in Italian. Two things, however, work against it. One is the too gaudily upholstered libretto, stuffed with too many elegant literary turns that put too much distance between the characters’ experience and what an audience is willing to suspend disbelief for. Clever writers of opera never asked too much of their libretti, since the purpose of the music is to add the emotional underpinnings of the action.

The other thing, alas, is the title character. While it’s clear that Azzurina is struggling to declare independence from the cloistered existence to which her father has condemned her (though putting in a good word for Dad here, in the original fable it’s clear that the reason for sequestering Guendolina was that in plague-ridden 14th century Italy an albino was considered an agent of the devil—to let her loose outside would be her death warrant at the hands of the peasantry), the character of Azzurina is basically passive. She is the center of a tug-of-war between Pietro and the unseen (by the humans) Arrangiarsia, with Gennaro’s ambiguous attentions thrown in to pique Azzurina’s interest in the grownup world. As a consequence, Lamoureux, whose past roles run in the direction of perky soubrettes (Zerlina, Pitti-Sing) but who possesses, as a few indiscreet moments of music disclose, a clarion upper range, was largely held back to a thin, slightly wobbly and snivelly affect. Thus, even her big numbers came off as wan; here, perhaps, a little less psychological realism would have made of the opera better drama.

The other two principal roles in the opera were taken by women, both of whom presented firm characterizations and well-delivered, secure voices in the roles of household servants: Sarah Kornfeld as the flirty yet oddly puritanical Schaveria (whose liaison with and, we are led to presume, ultimate marriage to Gennaro was the catalyst for Azzurina’s decision to flee) and Stephanie Benkert as a more sympathetic Gelsumia. There was also a chorus, used chiefly in the banquet scene and otherwise as silent supernumeraries, whose contributions were at a high level of skill. As noted earlier, the staging by Huelskamp and set design by Peter Waldron were decorous, restrained and appropriate to the action and space, as was the unobtrusive lighting by Lucas Garrity. Libretti were not provided, but supertitles were, though the stage lighting often rendered them hard to see. We note that videos of Juventas’s last staged production, our colleague Peter Lane’s ballet Hack Politik, are to be released; perhaps they will do likewise for The Little Blue One, so one could gain greater familiarity with the score; it could yet prove to hold the boards well.

*

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.