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San Francisco's Pocket Opera performs Two Verdi Operas

A review of two Verdi operas performed by Pocket Opera.

Ernani

When a company such as Donald Pippin's Pocket Opera presents a work like Verdi's Ernani, the result is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it is a joy to hear this rarely performed masterpiece and the performances by cast and orchestra members provided a satisfying degree of style and substance. On the other hand, with the reduced forces at the company's disposal, the power and sweep of Verdi's score could only be partially realized.

But one doesn't go to Pocket Opera to experience the grandeur and expansive qualities that opera can provide. Rather, one goes to have a more intimate, personal experience with opera and see some outstanding local talent in repertory more varied than in many venues. And that is exactly what Ernani had to offer in this, the first production of the company's 1999 season.

On of Pippin's aims in creating Pocket Opera has been to make opera as accessible as possible for everyone. To that end, not only does he create his own English translations of virtually every opera the company has performed, but he also provides a narration that is at once thoroughly informative and delightfully droll. The quality of the narration offsets the frustration of having the momentum of some scenes interrupted with the next segment of narration.

As for the translations, they can at times be way too cutesy, but for the most part sound highly singable and match the melodic contours admirably. For this production of Ernani, the cast all managed highly comprehensible diction making the text easily understandable and enjoyable.

Ernani provides ample opportunity for the four principals to display both their dramatic and vocal gifts in a story twisted around inflexible concepts of honor and duty. In this case, the traditional love-triangle is expanded and all three male leads vie for the hand of Elvira. Ernani, the outlawed nobleman reduced to banditry; Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, Elvira's guardian and unwelcome prospective husband, and Don Carlo, the King of Spain and future Holy Roman Emperor; and Elvira, the object of their obsession, all have impressive, demanding arias as well as various duets, trios and ensembles.

Each of the principals brought a welcome array of strengths to the production. In the title role, Michael Licciardello's clear ringing top and impassioned phrasing caught the sweep and ardor of Verdi's vocal line and he played the role with the kind of utter conviction to make plausible the character's single-mindedness.

Elin Carlson, a tall woman who carries herself with great grace and presence, presented an Elvira of determination and assurance. Vocally her strengths included a strong, free top, easy and cleanly articulated coloratura and intelligent use of chest tones. The middle voice lacks the fullness of tone needed to be fully expressive, but Carlson's fearless attack and secure phrasing compensated. In the cabaletta to her "Ernani involami" (here "Ernani, Oh, rescue me"), not only did she take the repeat as was the case with the other cabalettas in this production, but she embellished the already florid vocal line.

Ralph Wells' best vocal feature is his top range, which remains robust and full to the top. Lower down he tends to allow the placement to slip back and lose focus, but in the top and upper middle range where Verdi placed so many key phrases, Wells soared with authority and power. As an actor, Wells sometimes failed to convey the regal presence of the king and gave a generalized interpretation, losing, for instance, the cruel sacasm of "Vieni meco, sol di rose" (in translation, "On a pathway strewn with roses").

Leland Shanley Morine was a highly individualized, well rounded Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, though more convincing in his sympathetic "Infelice! e tuo credevi" ("Foolish Dreamer! A True Believer!") than in the grim implacability of the later scenes. Morine used his attractive lyric bass intelligently, with a clear focus and smooth support.

The staging by Andrew Morgan allowed the singers to concentrate on the music and characters within the framework of a simple, unfussy production. Cynthia Quiroga's costumes ranged from full period costumes for some of the principals to simple modern dress simply accessorized for the chorus.

As one of the heavier, bigger operas in Pocket Opera's repertory, Ernani exposes more of the company's weaknesses. Even so, the musical and theatrical pleasures easily outweighed the shortcomings and Ernani came off as a successful start to the new season.

King for a Day

King for a Day, Verdi's second opera--and only comic one aside from Falstaff--was not a success initially and has never become a part of the standard repertory. But that does not deter Donald Pippin from including it frequently in the Pocket Opera repertory. For the 1999 season, it returns sounding as fresh and youthful as ever.

The plot, with a libretto by Felice Romani (sung in a translation by Pippin), of King for a Day (Un Giorno di Regno), includes a typical opera buffo story line with thwarted young love, a hidden identity, a scheming father and plenty of opportunities for solos and ensembles of the Rossinian type. While Verdi's score admittedly lacks the grace and polish of his predecessor's comic operas, King for a Day includes several delightful and tuneful numbers and is well worth the occasional performance.

The musical and theatrical demands of the opera are modest and perfectly suited to a company like Pocket Opera. With a skillful ensemble and the Pocket Philharmonic, one scarcely missed a full chorus and orchestra. And of course nowhere else does one get treated to Pippin's sparkling narration, itself worth the reasonable price of admission.

The cast was generally strong, though not without some weak links. Todd Donovan displayed a nicely focused baritone as the Cavalier disguised as the Polish King Stanislas. His full, pure tone and ringing top register suited the role as did his easy, natural presence.

As his apparently thwarted lady, the Marchioness, Jane Hammett matched him with and equally graceful, expressive presence and strong singing. Hammett's light soprano soared above the ensembles and deftly negotiated the coloratura writing. She also captured the Marchioness's various facets from romantic figure to motherly confidant within the compass of her performance.

Another absolute delight was Emily Stern's Giuletta. This young mezzo seems to be destined for bigger things if her performance in King for a Day was any indication of her potential. A radiant, unaffected presence and a beautiful and expressive face are complimented by fine musicality and a gleaming warm tone that is evenly and freely produced from top to bottom of her considerable range.

William Neely's Treasurer was drawn in bold comic strokes suitable for this bass role, but in a somewhat broader style than the rest of the cast. Neely handled both music and text with equal ease, tossing off the patter writing with finesse and commendable diction.

Richard Cohan's Baron was not particularly well-defined, but the fault lies as much with the role as with the performer. Cohan invested the part with an appropriately blustery bravado and sang with a full, if somewhat unfocused tone.

In the romantic tenor role of Edward, Lee Gregory lacked the resources to bring the character to life. His vocal technique is not sufficiently developed to allow the sort of easy, flowing tone needed and he sang off the breath most of the time.

Rick Dougherty's refreshing stage direction kept the action clean and allowed the humor in the opera to be derived from the characters and situations. He neatly avoided relying on shtick, and the results were both witty and classy.

Conducting from the piano as well as narrating, Pippin led a lively, persuasive reading of the score. In any other setting, using the overture as an Act II entr'acte as was done here, would seem a strange choice. But Pippin's introduction served as overture and set the mood perfectly for the delightful performance that followed.

Kelly Snyder is a freelance reviewer of opera and theatre in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also works as the Assistant Manager of Estate Services at Stanford University's Office of Development. Kelly also writes for San Francisco Frontlines, San Jose Living, and Le Concertographe. Occasionally, he performs Gilbert & Sullivan roles with the Lyric Theatre in San Jose. For information on upcoiming Pocket Opera performances, visit http://www.pocketopera.org/


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