Operas are fruit of the imagination. Conceived in the abstract, they are always tempered by the exigencies of production. What works on the page often doesn’t work on the stage. Arnold Rosner’s first completed opera – 1984’s The Chronicle of Nine – never benefited from a staging. In fact, it only received its first performance posthumously this past Saturday in a semi-staged concert performance by Odyssey Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Deprived of any of the constructive second thoughts a production might have generated, it remains a tantalizing might-have-been hampered by an episodic and dramatically inert libretto, adapted by Florence Stevenson from her 1969 play.

Megan Pachecano and Eric Carey © Kathy Wittman
Megan Pachecano and Eric Carey
© Kathy Wittman

Each of the opera’s three acts opens with an orchestral prelude followed by an arioso narrative from the minstrel, who frames the action as his ballad. He sets the scene and recounts incidents necessary to tie the acts together. Each act has three scenes, setting up numerological patterns of 3 x 3 and 9, a symmetry which might very well thread through the score itself given Rosner’s training as a mathematician and student of gematria.

Act 1’s vignettes revolve around the circumstances of Jane’s marriage to Guilford Dudley augmented by a four-part Wedding Ballet. Act 2 begins with a dirge for Edward VI leading into a gathering in the Council Chamber to proclaim the reluctant Jane, Queen, followed by Arundel (Jane’s uncle) and Pembroke revealing themselves as double-dealing Mary Tudor partisans, and ending with a strategy session where their successful manipulation of the preparations to march on Mary distances Jane’s powerful father-in-law from London leaving them a free hand. The chorus closes the act singing, “Long live the Queen!” But their praise sounds like a death knell. Act 3 finds Jane alone in her cell, then briefly joined by her husband. Expecting execution, they sing a soprano/tenor duet of love and regret, a welcome oasis of lyricism and a high point for Eric Carey. Mary arrives to confront her cousin, whom she believes innocent. Torn, she nevertheless bends to political expedients and informs Jane she will not sign her pardon. Despite the fact that Jane was executed on Tower Green, the final scene opens with hawkers crying their wares. As Arundel stiffens the resolve of a vacillating Mary, Jane goes to the block and repeats her Act 1 prayer, Christ’s final words from Luke’s Gospel, “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” and the opera closes on music from the prelude which opened it.

Of the nine historical characters, only Queen Mary betrays any doubt. Conflict endows her with a complexity lacking in the other nobles – gamesters ruthlessly gaming each other, to paraphrase a line from the libretto – and in Jane herself, the tabula rasa for everyone else’s plot. What she lacks in agency, however, Jane possesses in inner strength. Her seeming passivity is actually a profound submission to God’s will, as her Act 1 aria makes clear. Still, the libretto’s reliance on exposition and the score’s on declamation robs the narrative of focus, impetus, and tension. For his part, Rosner can meander and repeat himself, flaws Gil Rose valiantly strove to paper over. There are moments like the penultimate scene of the opera accompanied by cellos alone, where everything gels, but they are isolated, not part of any dramatic arc.

Rosner’s unique style – based on Renaissance and Baroque modal polyphony, with their characteristic use of dissonance; the juxtaposition of major and minor triads, and the pre-tonal harmony of late Medieval dance – fits his subject perfectly. Having the 63-piece orchestra often double the vocal line, however, impaired audibility.

Gil Rose split first and second violins looping the double basses behind the firsts and massing the six cellos in front of the podium, The harp and celesta, significant voices in the score, sat side-by-side next to the first violins. The seating allowed Rose to approximate the textures and clarity of a Baroque ensemble and gave the six cellos the prominence required to carry Mary’s Act 3 confrontation with Jane.

By turns imperious and sororal, Stephanie Kacoyanis’ contralto stood out like a pliant seventh cello. Meghan Pachecano, an angelic vision of white and gold down to her blonde hair and pallor, responded with quiet resolve and sincerity her voice pure and silvery. Her ability to float a long line fixed her Act 1 prayer as a companion vocal highlight. James Demler’s sonorous schemer, Arundel, rode the orchestra with ease and dominated the other nobles whose one-dimensionality offered little opportunity for characterization or vocal display.

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