Like opera itself, most opera houses are big. Then there is the Florence
Gould Theater, in the basement of San Francisco's Legion of Honor. It
seats 300 (against the War Memorial's 3,000), with a bare-bones stage
of 25 feet by 21 feet (the Opera House stage is 134' wide, 84' deep).
Built in 1924, eight years before "Tosca" inaugurated the War Memorial,
the Gould - a round, white structure, by chance an opulent, but postage-stamp
version of Berlin's Komische Oper - serves well Donald Pippin's Pocket
Opera and that company's brilliant miniatures.
But now, in this Louis XVI-style jewel box, something big and daring and
quite wonderful is taking place: the San Francisco Lyric Opera's youthful,
talented, and very BIG romp of "Carmen," with a cast of 50 (fifty).
To continue in the statistical mode: that's one cast member for every
six in the audience... and yet, we are not talking about a Guinness
Record type of stuffing phone booths. No, the subject at hand is an
exceedingly enjoyable performance of "Carmen," opera seen and heard
with a lasting smile on the face.
"Carmen" happens to be the most frequently performed work in all opera,
and so it is a completely exposed one. Most of the audience is humming
along - some silently, some not - the Toreador Song and the other "big
numbers." Barnaby Palmer, the Lyric Opera's very young music director
met all challenges of size, familiarity, expectations and - in some cases
- ennui by conducting a musical crackerjack of a performance: vibrant,
steady, consistent, beautifully balanced.
Palmer's singers did him proud, but his greater achievement was in
selecting, seating and conducting a tiny, very young orchestra that was
blazing through the night. Yes, seating is an issue: the Gould has no
pit, so 15 musicians are squeezed into the theater's first three rows -
and tickets are sold in the fourth row, inches away from the conductor
and the musicians, albeit at half price and with a warning of "limited
Concertmaster Wenyi Shih is also the violin section itself, but for
the able support from Erin Benim. Violas - important in "Carmen" - are
represented (warmly and powerfully) by Marcel Demperli all by himself.
Codrut Birsan's synthesizer takes care of percussion and much else
besides; Carla Eckholm's bassoon solo in the Act 2 Prelude, and Michelle
Caimotto's flute in the Act 3 Prelude were especially appealing.
At the risk of sounding sexist, ageist or beauty-ist, the observation
is unavoidable that Lyric Opera employs (most likely, for peanuts) young
and handsome singers in a proportion far superior to big, famous companies.
The truth must be told: opera goes better with such beautiful, fiery
singing actresses as Ariela Morgenstern in the title role, Sarah Macbride
as Micaela, the explosive Anja Strauss as Frasquita, and Katherine Growden
Carmen had a tough time choosing between Don Jose and Escamillo, based
on looks alone. Christopher Campbell had a more mature (but nifty) look,
while Zachary Gordin's bull-fighter seemed ready for the prom or the
homecoming game. The smugglers and soldiers were good looking, the
revolting cigaret-makeresses attractive to a fault and strong, and the
children of the Golden Gate Boys Choir all above average.
As far as singing goes, the ensemble performance held throughout.
Individually, Morgenstern supported her dramatic channeling of Carmen
musically as well, except for going slightly flat in recitatives.
Macbride, while being an exemplary Micaela, milked her big moments at
the cost of sticking out a bit much, with momentary lapses into trying
to blow the walls down.
Gordin's Escamillo was a heroic performance: maximum effectiveness
with a minimal voice; clearly my first toreador employing Sprechstimme.
Campbell's Don Jose, on the other hand, provided the biggest, finest
voice in the cast - a budding heldentenor and a prominent lyric singer
- while his acting left much to be desired: seldom will you see a powerful
singer less comfortable on stage.
Awards are due to stage director Heather Carolo and stage manager Julian
Leiserson, who handled three hours of extreme crowding without a single
collision, and successfully choreographed "vertical" dance numbers for
Gypsies and smugglers, who pretty much danced in place, no alternative
being available. Jean-Francois Revon's modest, economic sets could be
called "schematic" or "evocative," best exemplified by a free-standing
door frame at one point. Kudos to the director and David Ransom's
lighting design for refraining from dimming the lights every time the
"fate theme" is heard - a most annoying habit in many productions.
To repeat: nits and all, it all came together, for a fun, entertaining,
dramatic, musically appealing performance, all the more impressive when
looking at the facts. It's a remarkable company, the NEW, reconstituted
SF Lyric, producing operas on a professional level, on an annual budget
of $250,000 (vs. the SF Opera's $54 million); it stages four operas,
in 16 performances - coincidentally the same number as the much larger
Opera Colorado produces, a company with a new, $92 million theater.
The Lyric has the lowest prices around, ranging from $15 to $28 (vs.
Opera San Jose's least expensive seats, for$65), and the company treats
children to free tickets. Unlike any other company in the Bay Area,
where one recognizes the same people at performances, at the Lyric,
they are almost all "strangers" - meaning the company is bringing in new
audiences. Performance after performance is sold out, as music lovers
are beginning to discover what the Lyric's Simon Palmer likes to call
the city's "other opera company."
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