Odyssey Opera made its debut last night at NEC's Jordan Hall with a concert version of Wagner's epic, "Rienzi"; the company, however, is not exactly new to Boston. After the sudden close of Opera Boston several years back, artistic director, Gil Rose, and funder, Randolph Fuller, reconnected to launch Odyssey Opera: a new company with a familiar, but streamlined mission.
Fuller stated that Odyssey Opera aims to "introduce [audiences] to works that cry out to be heard," and "Rienzi" was, without a doubt, one of these gems that fell through the cracks. "Rienzi" is only Wagner's third opera and was a real hit in its heyday. Hardly recognizable as "Wagner," this early work can best be described as a hybrid between the grandiose French stye of Halevy and the dramatic nature of Verdi's later works, but, on all fronts, last night's rendition of "Rienzi" was a raging success.
Gil Rose, at the podium, mustered a polished sound from the Odyssey Opera Orchestra from start to finish. The famous overture evolved with effortless cohesion from the disarmingly charming melody of Rienzi's Act V prayer to a neat, articulate march. Within the first few minutes of "Rienzi", the audience is slammed with nearly every character of the opera, and not one of these eight voices disappointed. Each singer had their own strength, but the night's undoubted star came from a rarity in Wagnerian opera, a trouser role. Soprano Margaret Jane Wray was a Wagnerian dream in the role of Adriano Colonna, Irene's lover and Rienzi's foe. There was no orchestration that Wray's bright, yet hearty voice could not glide effortlessly over, and yet her emotions, whether of poignant love or anguish, were always tactfully communicated. The culmination of her diverse skills took place in Adriano's Act II "Gerechter Gott." Her tone was consistent from high to low, her melodies supple, and her intonation precise.
Elisabete Matos, in the role of Irene, was not quite so lithe in her melodic phrasings, but turned out to be quite a powerhouse of sound. Despite a very wide vibrato, Matos maintained the stability and power to really drive home the musical drama of the large ensemble scenes. Her physical engagement brought an extra, dynamic dimension to Irene and created a nice interplay with Wray's more subdued concert acting.
The space of the Jordan Hall proved, ultimately, to be too small for the Wagnerian orchestra and three choirs that "Rienzi" called for. Though both groups sounded impeccably rehearsed, some of their thrilling potential was lost in the overwhelming wave of sound that, at times, merely washed over the audience without room to really resonate. The angelic women's chorus of Act II was one of the more riveting choral moments. In contrast, the male chorus sings an ominous "Te Deum" in Act IV, which curiously recalls the male chorus of the monastery scenes in Verdi's "Don Carlo" before Wagner.
As if five hours wasn't long enough, it would have been a pleasure to hear more from some of the night's minor characters, namely bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter and baritone Stephen Salters. Irmiter, in the role of Cardinal Orvieto, didn't waste a single note of this succinct role. In just a few short scenes, his expansive voice had left a lasting impression and an appetite for more. Salters, in the role of Adriano's father, Steffano Colonna, possessed, like Wray, an ideal Wagnerian sound. The balance between passion and power made him an invigorating, but never forceful, presence.
Kristian Benedikt deserved a standing ovation just for making it from start to finish in the mammoth title role. Benedikt not only made it to the end, but paced himself so that he could deliver a glorious and triumphant finale. The unusually dark quality of of his tenor brought a fitting masculinity to the valiant leader, Rienzi; however, the duskiness of his tone also let his voice sink, indistinguishable, beneath the voluminous climaxes of the orchestra. Though piercing high notes were not Benedikt's forte, his intonation was virtually flawless and his tender sculpting of one of Wagner's most sublime melodies in Rienzi's Act V prayer left nothing to be desired as the night drew to a close.
Granted "Rienzi" sounds more like Italian opera than anything we know and love Wagner for, "Rienzi" does possess all of the electrifying dramatic pull that characterizes Wagner's later works. It is really a shame that such a well-rehearsed and exquisitely executed show had only one day in the sun.