It just doesn't get any better than this: a peaceful blue-state Sunday
afternoon by the Bay, 70 breezy degrees, the sparkling Pacific lapping
at the old piers in Fort Mason, sea gulls calling from outside Cowell
Theater (whatever happened to Richard Bach?), and inside, the best-ever
SF Opera Center Showcase presentation, three rarely-performed operas
well performed, a young bass marked for greatness singing Pergolesi to
a T, and a world-class Donizetti production that's not only authentic
and gorgeous, but also joyously hilarious, AmeriFun replacing EuroTrash.
I mean, really, what can be better?
Mark Morash is the exceptional music director, Christopher Alden, bless
his heart, the genial and genius stage director. Notwithstanding a touch
of shoe fetish (to make fun of that unfunny "Alcina" perhaps?) and a bit
of defiantly un-Californian on-stage smoking (warnings duly posted),
Alden gets it all right - as he almost always does, although not to the
extent of that crowning glory, his 1998 SFO "Poppea."
Alden pulls together three very different one-act works, under the
collective title of "What Fools These Husbands Be!," in modern (but not
attention-getting) dress and simple settings, drills the young artists,
presumably forever, to get flawless ensemble performances, and then the
director employs just one singer to appear in each opera, "binding" them
together. And how!
Gerald Thompson is a sweet-voiced counter-tenor with an effortless,
elegant delivery... and a non-theatrically Everyman appearance - not
much hair, a oblong shape, with an innocent, benign expression on a round
face. Alden put the finishing touches on with simple, drab clothes,
crowned by a rather ill-fitting brown sleeveless pullover, presumably
from a Sears sale. So here is our Candide, walking in and out of three
different stories, three different periods, observering or taking part
in the action, then breaking out in gorgeous Elizabethan songs, by Thomas
Campion and John Dowland. And staying in the background.
It all worked perfectly, but reached a peak in Donizetti's "Rita," hitting
funny bones so painfully that tears welled up in my eyes, as I was sliding
out of my seat helplessly. Thompson appeared as a hotel guest, delivering
a ravishing "Beauty is but a painted hell" in the empty dining room,
then tried to follow the rapid Italian dialogue as the complicated story
unfolded. At one point, he asked meekly if anyone spoke English, and
then cleverly walked all the way downstage, peering up to the supertitles
to figure things out. And yet staying in the background, thanks to
"Rita," with a heroine Alden calls "a bush-league forerunner of Turandot,"
is a gloriously melodic work - as are all Donizettis, neglected as the
composer may be by the past three SFO administrations - about a
self-liberated 19th century woman, who'd rather beat one husband than
be beaten by another.
The cast featured a trio of Adler Fellows, all on fire. Thomas Glenn's
"very Italian" tenor, as Beppe, (the mild-mannered husband), and Eugen
Brancoveanu's blustery "Russian-type" bully with hopes for a New World
marriage next ("O Canada!" said the supertitles at one point), worked
beautifully with the landmark performance of Nikki Einfeld in the title
role. With a sudden burst in the young soprano's development, a formerly
pleasant, soubrette-type singer now serves up blazing, rock-solid,
effortless bel canto - most impressive.
And so was Joshua Bloom in Pergolesi's "La Serva Padrona," fighting with
(and losing to) Jane Archibald's dominatrix Serpina, the bass barefoot
and in silver (but unostentatious) pj's, doing eyepopping physical comedy,
but above all, singing fabulously. His is a big, warm, "true-bass"
voice, exactly right in the middle range and for low notes, "whiting
out" occasionally in the upper range. Through it all, Bloom exhibits a
vocal (and stage) presence that is reminiscent of the Great Ones in their
youth. Here, obviously, is a singer more than "promising" - you can bet
the bank on this one.
Bloom also took a small part in the eeriest work on the program, playing
a rather randy father-in-law, at least, in Alden's suggestive direction.
Darius Milhaud's "Le Pauvre Matelot," with libretto by Jean Cocteau, is
about a sailor (Sean Panikkar), who mysteriously disappears for some 15
years, leaving a Penelope/Leonora-type faithful wife (Kimwana Doner)
behind, who eventually turns into a Fidelio... but "liberating" her
husband by killing him. Given in one act at Cowell, the "Poor Sailor"
is actually a three-act opera, difficult to imagine filling all that
time with its simple - if bizarre - story and music that's just passable.
Fortunately, "Rita" followed, and that happy experience made possible
misgivings about the Milhaud moot. See http://www.sfopera.com/showcase.asp
for repeat performances next weekend.
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