Monday, February 16, 2015
Zelmira in Rossmoor
The gated senior community of Rossmoor in Walnut Creek has just built a new Event Center for dining and dancing along with performances on a well-equipped proscenium stage by both residents and outside performing groups.
On Sunday afternoon at the Center, the Berkeley based West Edge Opera company inaugurated their second year of Opera Medium Rare, concert performances of obscure operas by famous composers. I tagged along with a friend who was a last-minute recruit for the chorus in Rossini's extremely rare 1824 opera seria, Zelmira.
It was an auspicious inaugural for the Event Center, with a large, attentive audience enjoying a surprisingly accomplished performance. For decades, I've been attending matinees at the SF Opera and SF Symphony, where the audiences are mostly elderly women, including busloads from the 10,000 person Rossmoor development. Instead of the stereotype of fuddy-duddies stuck in time, I soon realized that many of them have very sophisticated musical tastes honed over years of concertgoing and they are passionately interested in hearing new works. In other words, the audience on Sunday would probably rather hear an ambitious Rossini rarity like Zelmira than yet another Barber of Seville.
At this point in time, Zelmira probably works better in a concert version than if it were staged, because so many of the early 19th century dramaturgical conventions it embodies would strike a contemporary audience as absurd. However, a straightforward concert with clever scene-setting supertitles by Jonathan Khuner felt almost as if we were watching a silent film with broadly drawn villains, misunderstood heroines and confused heroes, except with exceptionally exquisite music. If you are an admirer of Rossini's musical genius, hearing a score this brilliant live for the first time is a treat.
One of the reasons the opera has been so rarely produced over the last 200 years is because it basically requires the two greatest tenors, two greatest mezzo sopranos, and a baritone and bass with the finest voices in the world, which makes it virtually impossible to cast. The West Edge Opera singers all started off a little rough in their various opening arias, but they warmed up quickly and the singing built in beauty all afternoon. (Pictured above left to right are Music Director Alexander Katsman, Shawnette Sulker as Zelmira, Brian Yeakley as Prince Ilo, Michael Belle as Antenore, Nikola Printz as Emma, Paul Thompson as Polidoro, and Jordan Eldredge as Leucippo.)
Shawnette Sulker in the title role (above right) was lovely in a stupendously demanding role, and Brian Yeakley as her Trojan husband sounded like a young Chris Merritt in the virtuosic Rossini arias. Yeakley is ready to hit major opera stages soon. Nikola Printz as the steadfast female warrior buddy of Zelmira nailed her passionate second act aria, and tenor Michael Belle was superb throughout as the Bad Guy even though some of the music was too high for his voice.
The real heroes of the afternoon were the four-piece ensemble that played a reduction of the 300-page opera score in a manner that ensured the music was constantly interesting. (From left to right, violinist Sara Usher, flute player Noah Usher, cellist Amy Brodo, and Musical Director Alexander Katsman playing and conducting from the piano.) At the end of the performance, they looked relieved and exhausted, but they did a great job.
One of the editors of the 2005 critical edition of the score, Kathleen Kuzmick Hansell above right, attended the performance and the wine reception afterwards. If you'd like to hear the opera, there is going to be an encore performance tomorrow evening, Tuesday the 17th, at a very different kind of venue from Rossmoor, the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley. Admission is only $20 at the door which is one of the best musical deals in town.