Tuesday, August 04, 2015

West Edge Opera

•Alban Berg: Lulu.
Jonathan Khuner, music director;
Elkhanah Pulitzer, stage director
seen July 25 and Aug. 2, 2015.
•Laura Kaminsky: As One.
Bryan Nies, music director;
Mark Streshinsky, stage director;
film by Kimberly Reed
seen July 31, 2015.
•Claudio Monteverdi:
Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria
Gilbert Martinez, music director
Mark Streshinky, stage director
seen Aug. 1, 2015.
Eastside Road, August 3, 2015—
IF OPERA AS WE (I) know it has a future in our country, the oligarchic United States of America, then I think West Edge Opera, headquartered in the culturally forward San Francisco Bay Area of California, is showing the way. The repertory is exploratory; the means are practical and well scaled; the artistic direction is secure and expert. Productions are mounted in various venues, chosen for cost effectiveness, marketing value, and I believe appropriateness to the work in question.

West Edge is an outgrowth, I believe, of Berkeley Opera, founded in that enlightened city some years ago by the Berkeley conductor Jonathan Khuner, a musical genius (in my opinion), heir to a great musical tradition, seasoned opera worker (coach, prompter, conductor), a graceful intellect and a true enthusiast of musical modernism. I've known him, though not well, for many years. I played bass drum in Ravel's La Valse under his direction, many years ago in a community orchestra. I narrated, as a sort of compère, a production of Beethoven's Fidelio under his baton more recently (but again a number of years back). And I recall running into him after a San Francisco Symphony performance of Gurrelieder : when I enthused at the accuracy and spirit of the performance of the long and complex piece he agreed, but noted that a flute note had been transposed an octave in a chord in a loud tutti passage. Khuner is attentive, observant, quick-witted, and utterly modest; his musicians enjoy working with him.

Earlier this year we saw a West Edge concert production of Rossini's Zelmira (reported on this blog in February), and I've already reported here on this month's Lulu, which impressed us so much we bought tickets for a repeat performance yesterday. The result was that we saw the entire summer season, three operas, in three consecutive days, each time driving an hour each way for the experience. And I retain my enthusiasm for the company, and look forward to next year.

That's not to say I thought the run an unqualified success. Laura Kaminsky's As One is not really an opera, I think, but a dramatic song-cycle, cast on two singers and accompanied visually by a film projected onto panels behind them, musically by a string quartet playing busily throughout. The lyrics, by Mark Campbell, in English, are basically a series of more or less dramatic monologues in which the protagonist of the piece evolves from a twelve-year-old boy to a mature woman. The subject matter is gender identity, and in my opinion the most valuable aspect of the subject and its treatment here, after of course the matter of tolerance for individual means of coping with identity and society, is the awareness that in most of us there are moments, awarenesses, and attitudes that are both masculine and feminine as our society has conventionally typified such things.

The two singers who together portrayed the protagonist, Hannah Before and Hannah After, were winning, persuasive, musically secure: mezzosoprano Brenda Patterson and baritone Dan Kempson looked similar enough (stature apart) to portray a single character, and their voices blended seamlessly in the occasional duet and more frequent overlapping solo lines. Their physical acting, too, handled Mark Streshinsky's low-keyed staging persuasively.

There are however two problems with As One : the libretto is pedestrian, more a description of an individual's character than a portrayal; and the music too often lacks — well, edge and character. Not always: I was intrigued by the Janáček-meets-minimalism quality of the opening scene; and the long aria toward the close, rhapsodic in its confrontation at last with Nature (the Norwegian fjords) rather than Society, seemed finally to get off the ground, to soar in vocal skies I normally associate with Richard Strauss and Mahler. In the intervening hour, though, the music was mostly vocal cantilena accompanied by literally descriptive and rhythmically busy string-quartet writing, tonal, consonant, and to my ear aimless.

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, known to its Oakland audience simply as Ulysses, is a very different kettle of fish. Premiered in Venice in 1641, it is with the same composer's L'Incoronazione di Poppea one of the oldest operas in the working repertory but not, of course, frequently produced. West Edge proved the error of this, as it was entertaining, often moving, often very funny, and always both interesting and refreshing.

Where As One had been produced in a sort of warehouse nightclub setting (though with conventional row seating and without table service, which would have improved things), Ulisse was mounted on a platform thrust stage, its runways embracing the improvised pit, in an immense former steel-mill in industrial Oakland. This is a long way from the splendors of Renaissance theater, of course; but it did point up the stock theatrics which underlie more evolved theater. Strashinsky's staging made me think from time to time of Shakespeare's mechanicals' production of Piramus and Thisbe; of commedia dell'arte; even of traditional Italian puppet theater.

Opera is classically defined, by Italians at least, as dramma per musica, drama through music. Every member of this cast moved and expressed himself physically with real acting skill, whether dramatic or comic: but the success of the event was above all musical. Monteverdi's vocal lines are superficially not that far from Kaminsky's: cantilena, consonant, generally conservative in dynamic and pitch range. They are very different though in terms of definition, structure, variation of tempo and dynamic; and melodically they have character and contour, steering one's attention rather than lulling it. And the accompaniment, while similarly string-oriented, modest in number, and steady in its support, is refreshing and supple.

Music director Gilbert Martinez, who directs the Berkeley organization MusicSources, Center for Historically Informed Performance, led the pit band from one of its two harpsichords, turning also to a small reed-organ to accompany the angry sea-god Neptune in his two appearances. Otherwise the instrumentation comprised two violins, two violas, a viola da gamba, and most prominent of all harp and theorbo: plucked instruments whose range and resonance supported the singers with great resonance and rich color. (The theorbo, especially the bass theorbo, must be one of the most eloquent inventions of all time.)

Monteverdi's libretto, by Giacamo Badoardo, is generally faithful to Homer's Odyssey, but reduces Penelope's many suitors to three comic characters, their protracted and relentless slaughter to a momentary burlesque. Ulysses's emotional return to his homeland shore, however, and Penelope's poignant constancy and suffering, are quite moving both in Monteverdi's (and Badoardo's) treatment and in this production's performance. Baritone Nikolas Nackley's Ulysses was secure, melodic, often tender; mezzo Sara Couden's contralto-directed voice gave Penelope a grave, innig quality that was very affecting.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the opera is its depiction of the gods, whose interference in human affairs portrays in theatrical terms the inner weaknesses, proclivities, desires, and ambivalences our own time explains through psychology and, increasingly, politics. In this performing edition the action is framed by discussions in which Jupiter, as god in chief, acting at the urging of Minerva, protectress of the Greeks and especially Ulysses, persuades Neptune, who'd favored the Trojans and punished Ulysses for the last twenty years, to let the poor man go home.

Of the three, Minerva is by far the most important, appearing at pivotal moments throughout the drama. The role was brilliantly sung and effectively acted by soprano Kindra Scharich; tenor Gary Rushchman was a pleasant Jupiter; Aaron Sørensen an effective Neptune. Those two were also two of the three suitors, Pisandro and Anationoo, and Sørensen's bass voice was as strong as a buffo as it was dramatic in the villainous role.

Michael Desnoyers was sympathetic as the shepherd Eumete; Johanna Bronk supportive as Telemaco; Jonathan Smucker effective as Anfinomo; Charlotte Goupille Lebret affecting as Melanto. The Leandra Watson's costumes were simple for the most part, decorative in the case of the gods.

Of the three productions, though, it was that of Lulu that was especially impressive. Complex, big in every way, daring in every way, Berg's opera and West Edge's production seemed logical, effortless, inevitable. Both audiences I saw were moved, gripped by the opera and its performance. West Edge is a company to watch, not only for fascinating entertainmemnt for its local audiences, but for what it suggests for the future and for other communities. The great heritage of music theater can be adapted to present needs and resources: it requires nothing more than nerve and talent.