Arnold Rosner’s “The Chronicle of Nine: The Tragedy of Queen Jane” is an operatic oddity of the first degree. Written on spec and finished in 1984, its score opens a portal to an alternate universe where the roughly two centuries of musical history between the death of Monteverdi and the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 never happened. Decades after its completion, it had never been performed or recorded in full. In other words, this is catnip for Gil Rose, who united his two musical enterprises, Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project, to finally give Rosner’s opera a posthumous world premiere at Jordan Hall on Saturday.
Rosner, who died on his 68th birthday in 2013, was a proud maverick malcontent. Born to a candy store owner in the Bronx, music fascinated him from an early age. His parents urged him toward a more lucrative career, but unable to resist music’s call, he ditched a graduate degree in mathematics and chased a degree in musical composition. This was the mid-1960s, where serialism was de rigueur in the halls of academia and minimalism was lighting up downtown performance spaces; Rosner spurned both, instead adopting as his pantheon the Renaissance polyphonists and 20th-century symphonists such as Nielsen and Vaughan Williams. He markedly detested the music of Mozart; in a 2006 blog post for Sequenza21, he lamented “the difference between the (mediocre) quality of his music and the (celestial) reverence he is accorded.”
With the ill-fated “nine days’ queen” Lady Jane Grey as the subject of the opera, the sound of Rosner’s beloved lute songs and polyphonic motets was appropriate thematically, and the score was suffused with their distinct influence. Hearing those modal melodies from a voluminous Romantic-sized orchestra was unfamiliar and, at first, slightly jarring; it wasn’t hard to imagine many moments sounding more at home in a consort of lute, viol, and recorder, with maybe a bray harp for some twang.
However, when it worked, it worked. Odyssey Opera’s pit orchestras have been hit or miss, but solid performances of unfamiliar, idiosyncratic scores are on brand for BMOP, and the orchestra did not disappoint. When I listened to the few selections of Rosner’s orchestral work available on recording, I often thought the pieces overstayed their welcome, but Rose’s astute leadership kept the sometimes-repetitive music from miring down.
Florence Stevenson’s libretto is sympathetic to the teenaged Lady Jane, depicting her as an unwilling pawn that her power-hungry family tried to promote to queen. That didn’t give soprano Megan Pachecano much of a character arc to work with in this semi-staged production, as Lady Jane’s mentality for most of the opera was either wide-eyed confusion or abject terror, but she worked with what she had; the first scene saw her mother admonishing her to sit like a princess, while the penultimate left her in her prison cell sitting perfectly upright. Contralto Stephanie Kacoyanis scorched the stage with her portrayal of a brittle, rueful Mary Tudor; her duet with Pachecano in that second-to-last scene, accompanied only by the cry of the orchestra’s cellos, was the standout moment of the evening.
Baritone James Demler as the Earl of Arundel and bass David Salsbery Fry as the Earl of Pembroke both acted and sang as if they had much more stage to work with, and their powerful voices easily rang through the thick orchestration and Rosner’s almost-constant doubling of the vocal lines. Tenor Eric Carey also had a memorable turn, however brief, as Lady Jane’s arranged husband, Guilford Dudley; the two shared a tender love duet in the final act that seemed pasted in from entirely another story.
Tenor Gene Stenger was in mellow voice but somewhat wooden affect as the Minstrel that introduced each act. As Jane’s father Henry Grey and father-in-law John Dudley, tenor William Hite and baritone Aaron Engebreth were about as effective at breaking through the orchestra as their historical counterparts were at breaking Mary Tudor’s military forces; as their wives, mezzo-sopranos Krista River and Rebecca Krouner fared much better.
As I entered Jordan Hall, I overheard chatter to the tune of “I’ve never heard of Arnold Rosner;" by intermission, those had changed to “Why have I never heard of Arnold Rosner?” Thanks to BMOP and Odyssey Opera, and Gil Rose’s penchant for recording, Arnold Rosner might be set to reach a larger set of listeners than ever.
Odyssey Opera continues its season of Tudor tales in March at the Huntington Avenue Theatre with Rossini’s “Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra." BMOP returns to Jordan later that same month for a concert of Joseph Schwantner’s music.