Tuesday, August 11, 2015
The Return of Ulysses to Burning Man
West Edge Opera finished their three opera festival with Monteverdi's 1639 Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in a production that was marvelously inventive, surprisingly fun, and musically serious. An example can be seen above with the goddess Minerva (Kindra Scharich) on a Vespa flying through the heavens with the son of Ulysses played by soprano Johanna Bronk in a cross-dressing turn so convincing that I kept wondering, "why does the fabulous male countertenor seem to have breasts?"
The former Berkeley Opera Company is currently homeless, which this season they embraced with a huge dose of ambition and creativity. The contemporary opera As One was performed in a Jack London Square punk rock club, the Alban Berg opera Lulu astonished everyone in a decaying, marble, abandoned Oakland train station, and Ulysses was performed at a high-ceiling event space at the huge American Steel Studio, Karen Cusolito's Burning Man art collective in the warehouse section of West Oakland.
There were complaints about the venues, with their inadequate ventilation, lack of enough bathrooms, and uncomfortable folding chairs, but the overall feeling seemed to be one of adventure and excitement, for both performers and audiences, introducing older people to newer scenes and younger people to accomplished, amazing music.
The Sunday matinee for Ulysses was sold out because the word got out pretty quickly that it was a great show, and the venue itself turned out to have surprisingly good acoustics, where every singer could be heard clearly.
Part of the reason for that clarity was because of the decision by Music Director Gilbert Martinez to conduct a lean, all-strings and continuo orchestra. They were always interesting and audible while never competing with a singer. According to the latest scholarship, this is probably how the opera was heard by its initial Italian audiences. The opera was only rediscovered in the 19th century, and performed again in the second half of the twentieth century, and most of the extant recordings from the 1960s and 1970s have large reorchestrations with brass, winds and percussion added to the mix. Hearing the music unadorned for the first time was a real treat, especially since the playing was so good.
General Director Mark Streshinsky directed As One and Ulysses, and each of them displayed intelligence and a welcome lightness of touch. In both operas, very serious scenes play off comic moments, and they were handled deftly throughout. Streshinsky also knows how to tell a story, and all the gods and tragic mortals and silly buffoons of Ulysses coexisted seamlessly together.
The cast was sensationally good, starting with baritone Nickolas Nackley above looking and sounding like a handsome and commanding archetype of Ulysses, even while cloaked for most of the opera as an elderly homeless beggar.
Tenor Michael Desnoyers as Eumete the Shepherd looked like he could have walked over from one of the Burning Man sculpture studios next door and he sang with sweet, unforced beauty all afternoon. His paean to being a sheepherder in the country rather than a royal sycophant in the palace was genuine and moving.
Jonathan Smucker, Gary Ruschman, and Aaron Sorensen were delightful as both Gods and Penelope's suitors, and their eventual deaths amidst the audience when Ulysses takes his bow and has his revenge was done on a $9.99 budget and worked splendidly.
The other serious vocal and dramatic standout beside Sara Couden as Penelope was Kindra Scharich as the goddess Minerva who looked and sounded as if she were ready to levitate at any moment off of one of the platforms making up the stage.
When she walked up the aisle with wings on, I was sure she was going to fly.