Caldwell's vision vs. fiscal realism. Opera Company of Boston's `M'ed'ee' evokes fantastic images

The sets came from Israel, the costumes from Greece, the singers from around the world, and the budget is to come from Providence - not the one in Rhode Island. Sarah Caldwell was at the helm last weekend for the opening of her new production of Cherubini's ``M'ed'ee'' for the Opera Company of Boston, which she founded in 1957 and has guided ever since. It was an engaging and, at times, intensely moving production, in which Ms. Caldwell stood true to her reputation for evoking ever new and more fantastic images to play upon the mind's eye and ear, no expense spared.

``She's extravagant, but it's worth it,'' declared Opera Company treasurer Constantinas Beldekas amid the opening-night euphoria after the Friday performance. (The opera will be repeated tonight at 8 and Sunday at 3 p.m.) At such a triumphant moment, it was easy to forget the financial shadows on the company's future, but the company's new president, Robert Canon, is determined that the company not complacently sing while its foundations burn.

The company, Mr. Canon said, has ``been in disarray from a management standpoint,'' operating ``on a hand-to-mouth basis'' in which short-term decisions made for artistic reasons have had ``long-term financial implications.'' It had ``not had the strong management and administration that matched its artistic leadership. Given a choice between hiring a bookkeeper and a singer, the singer was going to win out.''

As debt grew to almost ``unmanageable proportions,'' in Canon's words, the effects of this neglect were ``enormously destructive.'' With no paid full-time president before Canon, Caldwell had been in such complete control, both artistic and managerial, that when she had a serious illness in 1985, the entire season had to be canceled. After her recovery, everyone realized it was time for change. The company ``had to develop as an institution, not just build around one person,'' Canon said.

Current debt stands at about $4 million, which Canon hopes to remove by selling the Opera House to the City of Boston, which would refurbish the aging building and create an additional performing space. Other organizations would use the facility, sharing costs. The initial funding proposal died in the state legislature, but Canon believes a new initiative will succeed.

Meanwhile, the 1988 season is estimated to cost $2.3 million. Only $1 million is expected to come from ticket sales, and the rest must be made up from contributions or be added to the debt. Despite a modest grant from the state, there is little corporate support, and nothing from the National Endowment for the Arts. Canon aims to change all that.

Jean Haffenreffer, who chairs the company's board, is one of Sarah Caldwell's keenest supporters. ``I just think she's a wizard at making the opera become very real and important to the people that go to see it,'' she said. At the same time, she agrees that the company, which gave the first East Coast performance of Berg's ``Lulu'' and the American premi`ere of Schoenberg's ``Moses and Aaron,'' and which brought the world Shirley Verrett's first performance as A"ida, must be put on an ``even keel'' financially so that it ``can make proper advance planning ... to execute the vision Sarah has.''

But the demanding and erratic nature of the vision itself makes stability hard to achieve. The history of Caldwell's ``M'ed'ee'' illustrates the risks - financial and artistic - inherent in her pioneering approaches. The opera was originally scheduled for 1986. Had the sets come from a local manufacturer, the US bombing of Libya - which made it impossible to ship the sets from Israel - would not have led to a postponement. The opera was rescheduled for 1987 but postponed again. The Opera Company announced that Caldwell needed more time to work on the production, in particular to restore many sections of Cherubini's music, which are often omitted today. At the same time, observers noted that Shirley Verrett, who was to have sung the lead role, was having problems with her voice.

For the current performances Ms. Verrett was replaced by Josephine Barstow. At the last moment, Jon Vickers withdrew as Jason because he was apparently not ``physically or emotionally or vocally able to do the role,'' according to the Opera Company's director of public relations, James Morgan. His replacement, Joseph Evans, wasn't given a copy of his part until Jan. 10.

The work itself can be daunting to any company under the best of circumstances. Despite the many daring and innovative musical devices incorporated in Cherubini's score, the composer was bound by op'era comique convention, which required musical scenes to be interspersed with spoken verse that breaks up and weakens the dramatic flow of the work.

Caldwell's solution to this problem is the most striking, original, and troubling aspect of this production. The verse is performed in a new ancient Greek translation to music especially composed by Greek composer Michalis Christodoulidis (whom Caldwell has also asked to write an entirely new opera). For ``M'ed'ee,'' he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra of Greece in a performance of his own music. The words and music, recorded in Greece, are played back during the performance, as actors mime the parts and English translations are projected overhead.

The ancient Greek is declaimed with penetrating intensity, revealing a level of torment in ``M'ed'ee'' that lay beyond the culturally imposed constraints of Cherubini's era. Christodoulidis's music is highly psychological, making effective use especially of flute and percussion. But ultimately, in last Friday's performance, the transitions between ancient Greek and French diluted rather than complemented the Cherubini work.

The vocal performances were mixed. Josephine Barstow, in the title role, took time to warm up, but gave an extraordinary performance in the third act, her voice exploding into a full-bodied array of colors as M'ed'ee's hysteria took hold. The most beautiful aria of the evening came from Markella Hatziano, singing N'eris's ``Ah, nos peines seront communes.'' The purity of her voice, profound grief, and introspective thought it communicated were most affecting.

Joseph Evans did remarkably well to learn the part of Jason at all, given his lack of time to do it, but the inevitably inadequate preparation showed through in a weak, emotionally unconvincing performance. George Pappas, as Cr'eon, was on the stiff side, too.

The orchestra was in top form, projecting rich textures with depth, illuminating wayward details with precision. The chorus did a good job. The sets were bold and evocative. The costumes were magnificent.

But it was difficult to leave the auditorium without the feeling that, while there was much new insight to be gained through the new lens Caldwell had provided to picture an old story, the opera as a whole had not jelled.

The Opera Company is at an exciting juncture. Better to be stimulated by an inspired Caldwell experiment that didn't quite make it than to be bored by a hackneyed traditional production that never elevated the imagination above the ground. But if Caldwell's genius continues to charge ahead unleashed by realistic management, it may bring her company down as gloriously - and as tragically - as the temple which M'ed'ee destroys at the end of Cherubini's opera. Robert Canon seems determined not to let this happen.

After ``M'ed'ee,'' the season continues with ``Dead Souls,'' ``The Three-Penny Opera,'' and ``La Traviata.''

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