Thursday, July 30, 2015
Voices From The Grave at Merola Opera
The way art ages is mysterious. Whether it's literature, visual, performance, or in the case of opera a mixture of all three arts, the fashions and enthusiasms of one period often look ridiculous to another generation, and many works are thrown onto the historical scrapheap. In other cases the opposite occurs, and artists' works are selected for a pantheon, with occasional additions and subtractions, which endures over time. English composer Benjamin Britten is a good example of the latter, while the reputations of American composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti from roughly the same period seem to be sliding precipitously.
Menotti and Barber's operas both went out of favor around the 1970s, and though there have been fitful attempts at revivals of both composers' works, the frequency of performances is decreasing with each year. The first live performance of a Menotti opera for me was last Saturday at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason where the Merola Opera troupe of student singers performed The Medium, a 1946 wannabe shocking psychological melodrama. The performers were all excellent, but the opera struck me as dated and absurd. The music has a few lovely riffs but is basically reheated Puccini/Mascagni encased in a libretto by Menotti himself that is a distillation of 1940s Broadway trying-to-be-serious cliches.
Nicole Woodward as the brutal, alcoholic fortuneteller who has a nervous breakdown and Madison Leonard as her abused daughter Monica gave full-throttle, conviction-filled performances, and both sounded good, which somehow made the material worse because the histrionics as written were so false.
Then there is the character of Toby, the homeless Gypsy boy our phony fortuneteller has somehow picked up off the streets of Budapest and brought up as her slave. It's a mute part written for a young man. (Beautiful young men were one of Gian Carlo Menotti's passions, which possibly helped keep him alive until the age of 95. After 40 years of living together as romantic partners with Samuel Barber at a shared home in New York, he abandoned the depressed, alcoholic composer for a young thespian/ice skater who he adopted in 1974.) In this production, Toby was played by Australian tenor Alisdair Kent, with real acting ability and one of the worst wigs I've seen on an opera stage.
The second half of Saturday's double bill was Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, a frenetic comedy about a craven Florentine clan trying to rewrite the will of their just-that-moment deceased patriarch before his riches go to the clergy. The opera worked well on the tiny stage, and though the characters were directed by Peter Kazaras into cartoonish caricatures, the strategy worked well.
What helped matters immensely was Korean baritone Kihun Yoon above as the title character who swindles the clan of their most prized bequests, including the best mule in all of Florence. Yoon was genuinely hilarious in the role, obeying the comedy maxim that sometimes less is more, with a voice that was assured and beautiful.
Among the many bad relatives, a particular favorite was Tara Curtis above as Zita, even while having to puff away on a phony cigarette throughout the show.
The conducting by Mark Morash and the playing of the pickup orchestra was excellent in both operas, and it was too bad that Merola was forced to return to the Cowell Theater again after their sabbatical in the junior high school auditorium on Church Street over the last couple of years. At Cowell, there's not enough space for everyone who would like to attend, and the audience is practically sitting in the orchestra's laps. Maybe next year there will be a move to a more suitable venue. (Performance photos are by Kristen Loken.)