Harry, Clara and the New Old Ones

Soprano Sarah Cooper

Boston Opera Collaborative has emerged from the recent plague with an interesting staged Schumann mashup Dichterliebe and a BOC-commissioned song cycle “On Love” by ten poets and eight composers based on their responses to the music of Schumann and the poetry of Heine. Love in the time of… made its debut last night at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center.

Director and co-artistic director Patricia-Maria Weinmann had conceived the show for Zooming during the company’s Covid quarantine, but after discovering how the narrative power of imagined interactions between the poet Harry and his beloved Clara (think to Henrich Heine and Clara Schumann?), and between the 19e– and 21stComposers and poets of the last century seemingly outgrew the limitations of laptop screens, she decided to keep production going for as long as live performance became possible.

Andy Nice set the scene with eclectic groupings of thrift store tables, chairs and chests of drawers, in front of translucent draperies on which Kathy Wittman’s images of flowers and trees (with a little water and snow) hang shifted and transformed when not washed away by Talia Elise’s well-traced lighting, which served to emphasize emotions and direct our eyes to the feelings of the three singers Doppelgangers or alter egos, who usually stood and sang, but sometimes interacted with the ever-present Dichter.

Tenor Omar Najmi threw himself fully into the role of the shrewdly thwarted lover while delivering an utterly compelling rendition of Dichterliebe. His stage activity of scribbling poems, looking skyward for inspiration, and telegraphing both love and angst, was integral to Heine’s narrative thrust. He projected excellent German with well-colored tones – sometimes intimate in the best way of an art song – sometimes more heroically lyrically, depending on the version being staged. The very long part took it to glorious heights. His full piano partner, Jean Anderson, totally collaborated on the drama and did much of his lengthy postludes and introductions. The lid was open, and with the big voices on stage, she never needed to retreat to the background.

Anderson’s rendition of the 16 new songs managed to glue the very distinctive styles together. In carrying out the commissions, Weinmann not only gave each poet and composer a poem and song to draw inspiration from, but she also assigned a vocal range for each example, so she could intertwine the contributions of the three backing vocalists. in its staging. -on stage.

“I am wunderschönen Monat Mai” begin Dichterliebe and started the show off as what might have been a Lieder recital in a living room, with the tenor in a nondescript undress. He could have gone on and finished the cycle conventionally, but the interrupted cycle pattern started with two new songs. These and the following 14 responded differently to the former – textually and musically. Some poets have written about love, both upset and elated. Nature also figured in the daydreams. Some composers quote Schumann directly while others convey musical thoughts with no obvious connection. We heard what amounted to spirituals, as well as a jazzy stride and an angular parlando. Kitty Brazelton’s direct musical quotations in “In the Gathering” clearly anticipated “Ich grolle nicht”, while in the penultimate number “Detritus”, composer Manuel Rodriguez quoted Schumann’s opening song on May, while as the poet Karen Mandel wrote:

Soprano Gabrielle Clutter

I picked up handfuls of matter,
pulling them out of my heart,
stuff them into the suitcase.
They weren’t heavy.
Just heavy.

The suitcase seemed to evoke the coffin in the Dichterliebe closer (uncredited program translation):

Die alten, bösen Lieder

Let’s bury old songs and angry dreams.
Let’s bury them, get a huge coffin.
I’ll put a lot of stuff in it, but I won’t say what’s in it yet.
The casket should be larger than the largest wine tub.

Or in Richard Clarke’s more poetic translation (which we prefer):

The old wicked songs,
sinister bad dreams,
bury them now;
come get a big coffin.

I will put many things in it,
but I will not yet say what;
the coffin must be even bigger,
than the huge Heidelberg tank.

Other poems, despite their genuine sentiments, seemed less appropriate and less connected. Consider Missy Whiteman’s “Ancient Pathways”:

Your story, just a small drop in the eons of our existence, a strong grip on which we align ourselves and free ourselves from the prisons of colonization. Wovoka’s prophecy of the hearts buried at Wounded Knee seeds the tree of life, strengthened by Mother Earth.

Was Whiteman thinking of Heine’s last writings for his cousin Karl Marx?

The first of four supporting singers, soprano Gabrielle Clutter has a big, bright voice with high notes and the ability to drop beautifully. As Clara, she showed great chemistry with poet-singer Harry at first, and cold rejections at the end. Her moving facial expressions caught our attention. Her vibrato felt overworked in the intimate environment, but we learned that she felt a little out of sorts.

Three “Ancient Spirits” presented their new songs with great success individually and collectively in a unison trio at the end. The baritone Junhan Choi, familiar with BMInt readers, has a pleasingly liquid baritone and exhibits a mature, calm demeanor on stage. The Sarah Cooper soprano appeared with warmth, security and an appropriate attitude. The great and distinctive mezzo-soprano Alexis Peart wowed us with great pipes and a diva-like manner that was reminiscent of both Shirley Verret’s engagement and Jessye Norman at the helm. We would like to know more about her.

In the new hearings, we might uncover more connections between the old and the new, but even in the absence of such additional gleanings, we found Weinmann’s illumination of Dichterliebe to be a success, especially on his own terms. The decision to stage concerts or church vocal music is not uncommon. Messiah worked very well as in a modern opera staging HERE. I saw a Matthew Passion ballet. Peter Sellars staged Bach’s famous work Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut. Does anyone else remember the Boston Shakespeare Company production Winterreise by Schubert in which the tenor started from the back of the house to approach a naked woman on stage to lean back in the middle and intone Drei Nebensonnen leaving the house?

The show continues its run tonight and Saturday. Complete program HERE. Tickets HERE.

Lee Eiseman is the editor of the Spy

Above: Omar Najmi as Harry contemplates having a drink or picking up his notebook while Sarah Cooper sings.
Bottom left Alexis Paert, Bottom right Omar Najmi and Junhan Choi