Thursday, August 10, 2017

Chastity vs. Sex at West Edge Opera

I rode the ferryboat from San Francisco to Oakland's Jack London Square last Sunday afternoon and wandered through the outdoor fitness session above. It was a perfect visual introduction for the show I was attending in a West Oakland warehouse, the obscure, 1787 Italian opera by Vicente Martín y Soler, L'arbore di Diana, which was essentially a sex-drenched pastorale.

It was being presented by West Edge Opera, the troupe that has recently been presenting three operas in repertory over three weeks every summer. They have attracted a wide range of young talent, both local and international, onstage and off, including stage manager Renee Varnas above.

The company has been forced by external circumstances into Wandering Gypsy mode over the last decade, having been priced out of what they were hoping would be a permanent home in El Cerrito, and then various locations around Oakland, some more suitable for sound and stage than others. They hoped to have found a more permanent spot in the crumbling marble splendor of the abandoned Oakland Amtrak train station, used for their festival the last two years, but all events were recently banned there by the City of Oakland after the Ghost Fire tragedy. So the company scrambled again and through a series of deadline-filled negotiations with politicians and the Oakland Fire Department, they managed to secure a roomy, temporary operatic home at the huge, empty Pacific Pipe Company warehouse. And the beer and the wine, served up by volunteers and West Edge Opera board member James Parr above, is free. (Leave a big tip for the stage interns who are working 18-hour days).

L'arbore di Diana has been translated as The Chastity Tree for this production, and it was both a hoot and a real musical/literary discovery. The libretto was written by Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for Mozart's sex-drenched Don Giovanni in the same year. This is a happier, funnier piece than Giovanni, a satire of the musical fashion for "pastorales" which focused on the sweetness and innocence of rural shepherds and their loved ones as opposed to corrupt urban types. Except in this particular opera, the powers of sexual vice triumph over chastity, which is presented as a happy ending. (Somebody needs to write and film a miniseries about Lorenzo da Ponte, who ended up emigrating to New York City and starting the Italian Department at Columbia University, among other strange adventures.) The most charming aspect of the libretto is that women are in charge of the shenanigans, such as (from left to right) the three Nymphs Molly Mahoney as Clizie, Kathleen Moss as Chloe, Maya Kherani as Britomarte, Nikki Einfeld as the goddess Diana, and Christine Brandes as the god Cupid, posing as his sister in female form.

The plot has Cupid, God of Love, going to war with Diana, Goddess of Female Purity. Cupid's first maneuver is to kidnap and drop in a "hornier, handsomer" Papageno (in director Mark Streshinsky's words before the show) into Diana's garden, the woodsman Doristo performed by the German bass-baritone Malte Roesner in his American debut. Roesner was funny, moved well, sang beautifully, and looked like sex on a stick, so that it was no wonder that all three Nymphs, including Maya Kherani above, were ready to throw all vows of celibacy out of the garden.

To add to the arsenal, two young shepherds arrive on the scene to play pawns for Cupid: Jacob Thompson as Silvio and Kyle Stegall as Endimione. Christine Crook's costumes were completely out there, and some worked for me while others didn't, but loved Kyle's Tenore and Jacob's L'Altro Tenore Tshirts.

All three male characters are constantly being transformed intro shrubbery, put under spells, and bound by tendrils from the Chastity Tree, often ending up looking like a painfully frozen fitness class on Jack London Square.

Nikki Einfeld as Diana had an impossible role to sing, Mozart's Queen of the Night in one aria and The Countess in the next, but she managed to triumph. My favorite voice in the entire cast was tenor Kyle Stegall, the shepherd who is dropped by Cupid to conveniently sleep near Diana while she is in a bathtub. The ruse, as you can see, worked. I have heard Stegall a few times with the American Bach Soloists and his voice always stuns me with its unforced beauty and superior musicality. This was the first opera I have seen him perform and hope it's not the last. He's a special talent.

Christine Brandes as Cupid was a completely convincing deity, in both male and female guises. I was confused at first, and asked a friend whether Cupid was male or female, and his reply was, "Oh, stop being so binary, Michael." The translations in the English supertitles by director Mark Streshinsky were smart and funny. Using modern colloquialisms for 18th century comedies is a treacherous business (does anybody else remember David Gockley's ghastly English translation of The Magic Flute at the SF Opera?), but Streshinsky got it right.

The opera will be performed two more times and your chances of hearing it live in this lifetime are small, so do try to check it out.

Pictured above are choreographer Sarah Berges whose small troupe were the weirdly costumed Esther Williams Meets The Crawling Eye supernumeraries, the director Mark Streshinsky who did a fabulous job, and conductor Robert Mollicone who led a chamber ensemble from the harpsichord in a performance that made me want to hear the music again. Vicente Martín y Soler may not be as immortal as his contemporaries Mozart and Haydn, but in this opera he is a delightful composer worthy of revival.

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