Arts opera review

Rosner’s reactionary recitativo resuscitated

Odyssey Opera captures the fleeting reign of Lady Jane Grey in The Chronicle of Nine

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David Salsbery Fry, James Demler, William Hite, Aaron Engebreth perform in 'The Chronicle of Nine.'
Kathy Wittman

Chronicle of Nine
Composed by Arnold Rosner
Libretto by Florence Stevenson
NEC’s Jordan Hall
Feb. 1

A “fusion of seemingly incongruous elements” (echoing the program notes) is an apt description of Arnold Rosner’s style. Add to that his eschewing of Mozart as laughably overrated and his strong iconoclastic tendencies, and you make a classical music lover want to approach the man’s work with a nine-foot poker. Audiences on Saturday night did not have much to fear, however — for such strong statements, the music that unfolded onstage was surprisingly staid. It was pretty and rhythmic, but it lacked complexity and melody. It was epic in the sense of a movie soundtrack rather than a monumental work of art. Much of the singing was in recitativo style, which served to underline the incidental nature of the score.

The Chronicle of Nine is adapted from a play that documents the short rise and fall of Lady Jane Grey, a member of the Tudor family, who ascends the throne for the span of nine days as a result of the machinations of her relatives. Through the machinations of others, she is quickly de-throned and executed by order of Mary I. Considering that poor, manipulated Jane (Megan Pachecano) doesn’t come across much like the heroine of her own story, even the epic movie soundtrack doesn’t seem exactly apropos.

Conductor Gil Rose arranged the score skillfully, opening with a very strong overture that unfurls with an air of intrigue and fantasy. The violins provided a velvet carpet on which the harp and the trumpets alternated in a dance of sweetness and discord. Rose granted the harp all the prominence it’s due in a piece that draws so much inspiration from Renaissance and Baroque music, and it was like honey dripping off the side of the jar. The BMOP orchestra played with nuance and heart, undeterred by repetitive passages. Their conviction, especially when doubling vocal lines, was even strong enough to drown out the voices of some of the weaker singers.

Pachecano had no problem breasting the wave of orchestral sound with her lyrical soprano, while managing to rein in the power of her voice enough to convincingly portray the teenage Jane. In an interview with The Tech, Pachecano, a self-professed “stage animal,” admits that she does not have difficulty balancing the acting and singing that is demanded in operatic roles. And her confidence in herself is not misplaced. Her bearing and facial expressions make her a magnetic presence on stage.

The main challenge for Pachecano in performing the role of Queen Jane was that there was no precedent, no recordings to harken to, “no way to know… [you] have a good idea, but there’s no way to really know.” She got “the opportunity to create something new,” which was “fun, but there was also a great responsibility to do justice to the piece.” Especially, she added, if the composer has passed, as is the case with Rosner, and is not able to share their vision or hear their piece for the first time. In cases like these, the singer “really needs to take ownership” — it’s not enough to just learn the solo lines. They need to understand ahead of time where they will fit, and to do this, they need to study the full score (rather than the reduced piano and vocals that might be sufficient for preparing for a classic opera).

The cast of nine seemed well-coordinated despite having rehearsed together for the first time only a week prior. Bass David Salsberry Fry as the Earl of Pembroke and baritone James Demler as the Earl of Arundel made a comic plotting pair, wrestling with the leaden libretto while delivering booming, full-bodied notes that coursed through the concert hall. Gene Stenger, as the minstrel who heralds the arrival of a new act in the style of Elizabethan lute songs, was shy in manner but strong in voice. Costumes were luscious and of the period, but rather eclectic, some reminiscent of a merchant’s cloth while others a noble’s mantle.

The opera’s libretto is in English, and because the cadence of the language is weaved into the music, the two flow seamlessly together. Pachecano points to mixed meter and different time signatures as examples of how Rosner attempted to capture the natural rhythms of the language. She prefers singing in English, as she believes that “operas were intended to be sung by a native speaker and in modern times, we’ve gotten away from that somewhat.” 

While the subject matter provides ample psychological and historical fodder, the libretto itself is rather disappointing. The characters are flat (Jane is the most dynamic of the lot but still only swings between bemusement and terror), communicating by simple, single-sentence dialogues. An example of an exchange between Lady Jane Grey and her husband in Act III: “You are so very, very young.” “What does that mean?” “Nothing, really.” “Here, ‘tis good wine.” And I’m not cherry-picking. Having been written by the playwright herself, I would have expected a richer, more nuanced, and more substantive text.

Compared to their two very strong season openers (Henry VIII and Maria, Regina D’Inghilterra), The Chronicle of Nine is a bit of a comedown in terms of source material, but the execution by Odyssey Opera and BMOP does not falter. Odyssey Opera’s next Tudor era-inspired piece will be Rossini’s Elisabetta, Regina D’Inghilterra opening on March 13.

Update 2/6/20: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Pachecano's last name.