Arts opera review

How to dupe a queen

Odyssey Opera scours the operatic archives and unveils another work of underappreciated genius

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Queen Mary I (Amy Shoremount-Obra) and Gualtiero Churchill (James Demler) await the climactic execution.
Kathy Wittman

Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra
Composed by Giovanni Pacini
Libretto by Leopoldo Tarantini
Conducted by Gil Rose
Directed by Steve Maler
Odyssey Opera
Huntington Avenue Theatre
Nov. 1–3

How often do Victor Hugo, “Bloody Mary,” and Winston Churchill’s fictional ancestors come together? Not often since Giovanni Pacini’s operas went out of fashion. Pacini, a prolific bel canto composer, was a contemporary of many names that annually grace the programs of the best opera houses (Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini) and their equal in popularity and prestige. His electrifying opera Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra, based on Victor Hugo’s play Marie Tudor (1883), is a testament that natural selection in the arts is not to be trusted.

The plot is intricate, surprising, and thoroughly Hugo. Despite it being fashionable to say the opposite, I found the storyline to be more engaging and less predictably melodramatic than many operas. At the center of the fictional story is the titular Queen Mary I (Amy Shoremount-Obra) who is torn between her love for the sleazy, dastardly Scot, Riccardo Fenimoore (Kameron Lapreore), and her duties to her country. Seducing the queen for political gain is not enough for Fenimoore, who also goes after Clotilde (Alisa Jordheim), an orphan (but actually a duchess) on the eve of her marriage to Ernesto Malcolm (Leroy Davis), who took her in as a child. Due to machinations by Lord Chancellor Churchill (James Demler), both Malcolm and Fenimoore are sentenced to death. The queen intervenes; only one will go to his death, but even she is not certain until the dramatic conclusion which one it will be.

Shoremount-Obra swings between being a capricious, giddy woman who can barely contain herself waiting for her boyfriend’s arrival (La corona che cinge il mio crine) and a cold, calculating monarch who wields the power of life or death over anyone in her dominion. Jordheim was magnificent and may well have defined the role of Clotilde for our generation. There are several duets between the queen and Clotilde (including Qual ora tremenda!) that beautifully pair the women’s distinct sopranos: Jordheim’s nimble and expressive, Shoremount-Obra’s deeper and full-bodied. Having two excellent baritones in this production was another treat. Davis sings with guileless emotion as if the feelings are all new to him, and his rounded, slurred syllables paint the libretto in blended, softer brushstrokes. Demler’s domineering yet restrained delivery is the flipside of Davis’s character and style, quietly letting us know who’s really in charge.

The first two acts had me on the edge of my seat, swept along by the perfect coalescence of music, voice, and vision, while the third had moments when I became conscious of the passing time. In the first act, the music is on the up, the pacing is right, and the self-interest of each character seems to be irreconcilably in conflict. Part of the lethargy of the third act was due to Fenimoore’s extended arias, which even seemed to have a worn-out Lapreore looking forward to the end. The audience’s sympathies have never been with Fenimoore, and his attempts at remorse don’t move anyone.

The singing of the Odyssey Opera chorus, especially the male chorus, and the choreography by Peter Dimuro made Pacini’s catchy ensemble pieces, like Forza ai Remi and Tutto e Festa a noi d’Intorno, shine brilliantly. They are rendered even more eye-catching by the costuming, which is contemporary with a medieval/steampunk flair, walking the tightrope between tawdry and tasteful. The Queen’s Guard wear matching calf-length firetruck-red trench coats, the nobles wear prom-like evening gowns and embroidered waistcoats, and the queen herself dons lots of lace and capes. The effect is immersive without going full-out period piece, and the subtle dissonance underlines the fictional nature of the plot.

The backdrop to this choreography of schemes and dreams is a simple but extremely effective set by Jeffrey Allen Petersen. On the three sides, wooden beams rise from floor to ceiling like vertical blinds, penning in the action. At the climax of the tale, a human-powered staircase moves across the stage as the prisoner alights it, his speed matching that of the staircase, always keeping his silhouette fixed in front of a red lit panel, creating an animated, surreal tableau.

With small changes in lighting and accessories, the stage transforms from a palace into the jail cells of the Tower of London. Lighting designer Jorge Arroyo masterfully manipulates mood: moments of tension and despair are cloaked with purple and blue hues, while the warmth of yellows, oranges, and reds herald happiness and passion.

Conductor Gil Rose and the Odyssey Opera orchestra once again demonstrate their versatility and meticulousness as they navigate Pacini’s dusty score with polish and perfect timing. The harp and the percussionist were on opposing sides outside of the orchestra pit. This had an interesting effect on the primacy of the percussionist in the score, making it into a heartbeat that ran through the whole production.

After a concert of Saint-Saens’s Henry VIII in September and a fully staged Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra, Odyssey Opera will continue its march through the Tudors with the world premiere of Arnold Rosner’s Chronicle of Nine in February.