Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Poliuto, Religious Martyr of Rossmoor
Mark Streshinsky, the charismatic General Director of the East Bay's confusingly named West Edge Opera, introduced Donizetti's rarely performed 1838 opera Poliuto to a large and appreciative crowd at Rossmoor's new Event Center on Saturday afternoon in Walnut Creek.
This was the second installment in the company's Medium Rare season which features concert performances of obscure operas by famous composers. They are performed with a quartet of instruments (conductor on piano, violin, cello and clarinet), a small chorus, and supertitles by Music Director Jonathan Khuner explaining what kind of dungeon one of the principals might be entering, and why.
The singers were all based in the Bay Area, with soprano Elizabeth Zharoff above of Sunnyvale as the single female principal, Paolina. Zharoff just had a starry debut as Violetta in La Traviata at the English National Opera, and is about to take off on a top-tier international career. Her music sounded almost impossibly difficult, but she performed it with beauty and courage.
The story is basically a love triangle, with Christian religious martyrdom in 3rd Century Armenia thrown in for good measure. Paolina is married to Poliuto who starts off the opera as a newly baptized underground Christian when that religion was still considered a dangerous cult. Unfortunately, he's also an old-fashioned Italian opera husband who jealously suspects that Paolina is having an affair. Tenor Michael Desnoyers did a splendid job in the title role, with his voice cracking once at the end of the first half but otherwise sounding sweet and unforced.
The other member of the love triangle is Roman General Severo, who was Paolina's beloved before being left for dead on a battlefield. He somehow recovers and returns to Armenia with instructions from Rome to stamp out the pesky Christians. The role was sung by baritone Anders Froehlich with such soulful charm that you hoped Paolina would leave her jealous husband and run off with Severo instead.
In the end, Paolina takes the noble path of converting and joining her husband in the arena for martyrdom, as the lovestruck Severo commits suicide. The 1838 premiere of Poliuto at the San Carlo in Naples was banned by Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, supposedly because he thought the religious story an unfit subject for the stage. His objections might also have been linked to the libretto's fierce anti-clericalism. The High Priest of Jupiter-worshiping Armenians cynically details how to use a bloodthirsty mob's religious bigotry for personal power, in a move that clergy have continued to hone over centuries.
The evil High Priest was played by John Bischoff in a male-dominated, very well sung cast that also included Michael Jankosky, Sigmund Siegel, Jake Scheps and John Minagro. Jonathan Khuner (above left) conducted from the piano, and though the coordination between principals, chamber orchestra, and chorus occasionally didn't quite mesh in the large ensembles, it was close enough to give you an appreciation for the opera, which contains some of Donizetti's best music. There's another chance to catch Poliuto tomorrow evening (Wednesday, April 1st) at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage coffeehouse. The $20 ticket price is one of the best musical bargains in the Bay Area.