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What's holding back Boston's opera

Two accomplished companies could achieve even more

There is probably more opera being performed in Boston now than at any previous point in the city's history.

There are two principal opera companies, Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Boston. The Handel and Haydn Society and the Boston Early Music Festival bring us staged baroque opera, and the most recent ``semi-staging" by Boston Baroque, Handel's ``Agrippina," turned out to be the most exciting operatic event of this season.

Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presents concert operas with pricey Metropolitan Opera singers led by their New York boss, James Levine. Emmanuel Music and the Chorus Pro Musica annually present opera in concert. And there are regular worthwhile student productions at New England Conservatory, Boston University, Boston Conservatory, and Harvard University. Teatro Lirico d'Europa, based in Bulgaria, has brought more than a dozen crowd-pleasing productions to town, often presenting works our resident ensembles avoid because they're too expensive to produce.

Twice in the past, Boston has arrived at the top level of international opera, with a combination of adventurous repertoire, major singers, and theatrically exciting productions. This occurred early in the 20th century at the old Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue, and later on with the late Sarah Caldwell.

But this can't even be a goal nowadays for two basic reasons: There isn't the money for it because of competition for funding with older and more prestigious arts organizations such as the BSO. And there isn't a suitable venue: a theater with a big, technically equipped stage; an orchestra pit large enough to accommodate a Wagner- or Strauss-size orchestra; good acoustics; and audience amenities.

That said, the city has to be grateful to the two companies that persist, and to the donors who enable them to. Both succeed and fail, often in the same production -- every opera company does that. But they generally achieve an honorable regional-opera level, and often some aspect of the productions goes beyond that.

Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Boston are similar in many respects. Both favor young American singers, with a special emphasis on those locally trained. And each has had an excellent music director.

At BLO, Stephen Lord, who has announced he will leave after another two seasons, brings strong musical gifts and knowledge of the scores and their traditions, as well as an uncommon understanding of singers, their needs, and their potential. His departure represents a loss and arrives at an embarrassing moment: Next month's issue of Opera News includes Lord on its list of the 50 most significant figures in American opera.

At Opera Boston, Gil Rose cannot match Lord's operatic experience, but he is an extremely gifted and versatile musician whose company allows him to be adventurous more consistently than BLO has allowed Lord to be . It must have galled Lord to have helped plan the first major US revival of John Adams's ``Nixon in China" for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and to have pitched a collaboration to the Lyric, which turned it down, only to have Opera Boston get it first, to sold-out houses and widespread acclaim in 2004.

That production of ``Nixon" put Opera Boston on the map and solidified a reputation for cutting-edge repertoire that the company had begun to establish in its first summer collaboration with Rose's other ensemble, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. That combination, Opera Unlimited , presented the New England premiere of Thomas Ades's ``Powder Her Face" in 2003 and the recent US premiere of Peter Eotvos's ``Angels in America."

But Opera Boston's main season has not always sustained that sense of adventure. The company's other American operas have been relics of 50 years ago that are beginning to feel a little musty: Robert Ward's ``The Crucible" last season and Menotti's ``The Consul" this season.

Of course, Opera Boston doesn't have a monopoly on failed follow-up s . BLO attracted 140,000 people to the Boston Common for free performances of ``Carmen" in 2002. Last December the company canceled the planned follow-up, ``Aida," which was to take place this fall. Failure of corporate donors to step up was cited as the reason, but one wonders what would have happened if serious fund-raising for ``Aida" had begun the morning after the last ``Carmen" performance.

Last season Boston Lyric Opera, sometimes regarded as too conservative and traditional, did try to generate excitement with Rachel Portman's ``The Little Prince" and Jonathan Dove's ``Flight," but both tanked at the box office. The conclusion BLO drew was that its audience does not like contemporary opera, but a more careful conclusion would be that its public didn't enjoy those particular operas -- and there was no particular reason why it should. ``Nixon," ``Powder Her Face," and ``Angels in America" had no trouble attracting a young and hip audience.

Both Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Boston had respectable seasons this year. BLO marketed its three operas as the ``diva season" -- works associated with leading sopranos of the past -- but fell short on diva power, with only the glamorous Kelly Kaduce offering diva potential in Massenet's tawdry epic ``Thais."

Dina Kuznetsova , BLO's Violetta in Verdi's ``La Traviata," is not a diva but a talented singing actress. And Tracy Dahl, who sang the title role in the rarely performed French version of Donizetti's ``Lucie de Lammemoor," is a hard-working professional who acted on a high level.

There was a lot of good non-diva singing in BLO's season as a whole, especially from tenor Garrett Sorenson and baritone James Westman , and characterful work from supporting singers, many of whom also appear with Opera Boston.

Meanwhile, Opera Boston, known for promoting ensemble efforts, fielded three productions and came up with two divas: the veteran Joanna Porackova, acting up a storm in ``The Consul," and young Barbara Quintiliani , displaying a true diva glamour of voice and larger-than-life personality in Donizetti's ``Lucrezia Borgia."

A major difference between the companies lies in the theatrical dimension. BLO prefers to present collaborations, presumably for economic reasons. This has been a mixed blessing, because not all of these productions have been good. All three operas this season were marred by ugly sets and portentous symbolism.

One wonders whether sharing productions is such a money-saver. Opera Boston, operating on about a quarter of BLO's budget, has turned to local designers and directors, most of them recruited from the city's lively theater scene. This can be risky; the company's version this season of Chabrier's ``L'Etoile" had its moments, especially when mezzo Valerie Komar , a diva-in-the-making, was onstage. But the 31-flavors-of-sherbet production overdid the whimsy, and ``The Consul" looked like a 1950s B-movie. ``Lucrezia" was controversial, but the ratty punk atmosphere of Steven Capone's set, Nancy Leary's costumes, and Jay Lesenger's staging certainly weren't predictable or pretentious.

``Angels," too, was well designed, directed, and sung. The problem was the pared-down libretto and the music, which basically provided the play with an incidental-music sonic backdrop.

Next season, BLO continues its recent conservative course: Verdi's ``Un Ballo in Maschera," Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly," and Mozart's ``Le Nozze di Figaro." Opera Boston honors the Mozart anniversary with a less-often-performed masterpiece, ``La Clemenza di Tito ," and schedules Bizet's ``The Pearl Fishers" and Kurt Weill's ``Mahagonny," one of the defining 20th-century operas, unheard here since Caldwell did it in the '70s and the Met brought it on tour in 1981, conducted by Levine.

There is no shortage of people who wonder how the city can support two opera companies when it has never adequately supported one. It could be that the answer lies in merging them -- after all, the present-day Lyric is the result of several previous mergers -- but creating a new merged company would probably take awhile because the major supporters of Opera Boston are disaffected former supporters of BLO. So there would have to be some changes of board and management, and feelings ride so high that maybe even some personality-modification therapy would be required. On both sides.

Meanwhile, the public has been the beneficiary of the rivalry between the two institutions. It gets six productions a year, and each company helps make sure that the other tries harder.

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