Small companies offer not-so-well known works

In any city that has a fairly large opera company, obscure works worth hearing are probably not going to get prime attention, because, to fill a large house, one must offer either staples or sure-sell oddities.

So it is to smaller companies one turns, and even to music schools, to supplement standard fare. Recently one could hear Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" at the Opera Company of Boston, while Verdi's second opera, "Un Giorno di Regno" ("King for a Day"), was given by the Boston Lyric Opera and Heinrich Marschner's "Der Vampyr" ("The Vampyre") by the Boston Conservatory of Music. A new Faust tale by Tony Shemmer, called "Phaust," also had its world premiere here. And coming up at the Opera Company of Boston is Wagner's "Der Fliegende Hollander."

Marschner's opera was first heard in Leipzig in 1828. It was of the same genre that brought forth Weber's celerated "Der Freischutz" -- a genre that had some heroic villain in a pact with the devil, and also in pursuit of a heroine who is in love with a dashing romantic tenor. Weber held the market, while Marschner fell into oblivion, because of apparent similarities in musical style. Yet Wagner loved the Marschner opera, using the villain-hero, Ruthven, as the model for his own Vanderdecken, of "Fliegende Hollander. But the music, thought it has similarities to Weber, is individual, not derivative.

And the plot, which at one time also added to the opera's enforced obscurity (even the shock-loving sensibilities of the day did not appreciate the notion of a vampire), is today just in time for the tremendous vampire-Dracula wave that has once again swept the land.

The performance at the Boston Conservatory was said to be the American premiere of the work. There are certain built-in limitations to student productions, but under the direction (both on stage and in the pit) of John Moriarty, "The Vampyre" had a very professional look. And with the controvatory orchestra superbly prepared, it was more than easy to get an idea of the theatrical possibilities Marschner's very skillfull score offers great singing actors. Throughtout, there are some fine tunes; splendid, showy arias for each of the principals; some superb scenes and ensembles; and a vivid theatricality.

This vampire plot concerns Lord Ruthven, who is first discovered in Hell, where Satan agrees to give him another year on earth if he delivers three virgins in the next 24 hours. After killing his first victim, he is stabbed, then saved by a friend, Aubrey, who is betrothed to Malvina. Her father has other plans -- she is to marry the Earl of Marsden, who is in fact Ruthven. Aubrey threatens to expose the vampire, who reminds Aubrey of an oath of secrecy taken for 24 hours. Ruthven then destroys a young peasant girl, Emmy, before returning to marry Malvina. As the 24 hours comes to a close, Ruthven is denounced, the earth opens, and Satan emerges to drag Ruthven down into the fiery depths.

There are overtones of "Don Giovanni" here, but Marschner never forsakes his voice for that of another composer's. And the results are invigorating. The cast was not especially good, though as Malvina, Bonnie Litteral revealed a large, potent soprano. It needs control and rounding, yet remains an instrument of considerable promise. And Kathy Wright, known locally as a very adept singing actress, was impressive again as an uncloying, securely voiced soubrette. Moriarty's production was often exciting, now and then silly (by today's standards, it is probably not possible to make all the plot twists and turns seem serious and natural), but always an intense presentation of a considerable work.

Several opera companies are planning productions of "Der Vampyr" around the country this summer and fall. Discovery of a vastly enjoyable, tuneful, often surprisingly beautiful opera will be but one of the rewards for your efforts in finding a performance to attend.

Verdi's "King for a Day" has always been deemed unperformable, since it was something of a fiasco in its day. But the Boston Lyric Opera production proved, through the expert conducting of its new artistic director, John Balme, that the music bubbles with fun and charm. There is not much true Verdi in it, rather more Donizetti or Rossini, but with a good cast and careful direction it can be a fine evening of froth. Unfortunately the production by John Haber prodded and elbowed the plot into broad slapstick parody, which the local cast was hard put to make amusing. In some cases, the singing was below par from generally tried artists. In all cases, the staging interfered with performances.

But Mr. Balme's contributions -- with a small but expertly prepared orchestra -- heralded the phoenixlike emergence of an almost fatally dormant company that once gave Boston operagoers a chance to hear unusual fare with the best possible local talent.

Promise is not a word one can use for Tony Shemmer's "Phaust," despite the obvious interest in a new telling of the famous tale. Shemmer sought to give an all-eras musical stamp to this eternal tale. But there is no apparent order in the nearly 3 hours of music heard in Cambridge recently. Rock follows blues, follows "classical," follows whatever else Shemmer chooses in his random survey.

A large orchestra was well conducted by Philip Morehead. The cast of excellent locals found James Maddalena in particular -- one of the smoothest young voices in Boston -- ill at ease with a hand mike. Only Raymond Sepe, the tenor Mephisto, caught the insinuating pop idiom to make his the most authentic performance of the insufferably long evening. If there was a promising seed at all in Shemmer's opus, it lay in the final mad scene for Gretchen -- one of mounting impact and beauty in which soprano Cheryl Cobb shone handsomely.

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