2005 Season • Review
Young Mendelssohn's opera well-sung
July 31, 2005
By Marilyn Farwell
Most of us at 14 years of age thought about dates, parties and passing our algebra tests. At that age, Felix Mendelssohn was writing his fifth opera, “The Uncle from Boston,” a comic farce with a ridiculous plot and elegant, engaging music.
Helmuth Rilling unearthed this delightful music and gave it its first public performance last October in Germany. Sunday afternoon’s performance at the Bach Festival was the North American premiere with the same soloists who sang it recently in Stuttgart.
By all measures, Sunday’s concert performance was splendid, with superb soloists, costumed for their parts, comic shticks befitting the libretto, and the wonderful festival orchestra and chorus adding luster to the score.
The absurdly complex libretto follows the time-honored plot of comic opera: a young girl is in love with her youthful suitor but her father/guardian/uncle has promised her to an old friend. The plot involves the young people outwitting the older generation. But while the music for this opera is complete, only a partial libretto remains.
In Sunday’s performance, a summary narration filled in the story line between the musical numbers, in this case staged by Steve Wehmeier and Kim Donahey as a dialogue between two people trying to understand the story and adding bemused reactions to its foibles.
But the music was the reason to leave a sunny Eugene afternoon and huddle in the darkened Silva auditorium. Filled with reminiscences of Mozart, particularly of the “The Magic Flute,” the music was enchanting, belying a 14-year-old’s immaturity. It was also splendidly sung.
Donna Brown’s amber-hued voice beautifully filled the role of Fanny, the young girl, and Julia Bauer’s warm yet bright soprano superbly fueled Fanny’s impertinent maid, Lisette. In a lengthy, expressive lament that recalled operatic arias from both “The Magic Flute” and “The Marriage of Figaro,” Brown sang with special poignancy.
The young swain Carl was sung with charm and a lovely dark timbre by lyric tenor Carsten Suss. Lothar Odinius’ elegant tenor was welcome in the small role of Theodore.
As with most comic operas of this time (1824), the basses played humorous or buffo roles, often the older men who are duped by the young people. All three basses were excellent: Klaus Hager as Tauber was the most foolish; Markus Marquardt as Felsig played the uncle from Boston; and Andreas Daum as Burg was the older man to whom the uncle has promised Fanny’s hand in marriage. Hager’s antics as the bumbling officer were particularly comical.
Even the three peasant girls were excellently cast from members of the choir.
Humor was the guiding light of the performance, even if some of it was pointed at the opera’s story line. Rilling also entered the comic fray when one of the singers, during his aria, crossed in front of the podium and took Rilling’s baton, giving him, in exchange, a four-foot walking stick. To the delight of the audience as well as the performers, Rilling conducted the next musical section with this outsized baton.
After Osvaldo Golijov’s mesmerizing “La Pasion,” this concert was the high point of the first week of the Bach Festival.
Marilyn Farwell is a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon.
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