Last night Everett Auditorium was the venue for the first performance of the annual Schwabacher Summer Concert. This is a major event in the Summer Festival of public performances arranged by the Merola Opera Program. (The second performance will be the free concert in Yerba Buena Gardens tomorrow, July 19, at 2 p.m.) This has always been conceived as a presentation of scenes, stressing the fact that the Merola training program is as much about stagecraft as musicianship. The production has also traditionally been an exercise in the economic use of resources, working with a minimum of sets and costumes, many of which are repurposed from one scene to the next.
That economy also extended to the number of singers. Only ten Merolini vocalists participated: sopranos Maria Fasciano and Talya Lieberman, mezzos Shirin Eskandani and Nian Wang, tenors Mingjie Lei and Chong Wang, baritones Gideon Dabi and Alexander Elliott, bass-baritone Matthew Stump, and bass Anthony Reed. In order of presentation, the source operas for the excerpts were as follows:
- Mignon by Ambroise Thomas
- Semele by George Frideric Handel
- Luisa Miller by Giuseppe Verdi
- The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini
- Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
- La Cenerentola by Gioachino Rossini
- Carmen by Georges Bizet
All staging was imaginatively conceived by Roy Rallo, and the Schwabacher Summer Concert Orchestra was conducted by 2002 Merola alumnus Eric Melear, who began the concert with an overture (for La Cenerentola).
Melear’s crisply precise reading of that overture, attentive to all of Rossini’s subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) use of dynamics, set the tone for the entire evening. This was a performance in which no aspect of craft was ever overlooked or bypassed, but the result of all that intense focus was some of the most highly engaging presentations of both warhorse events and comparative rarities. Each scene was registered with a memorability that induced a desire to experience the entire opera. Removed from context, the scene could still register clearly the nature of each of the characters and the web of relationships that connected them.
Rallo was particularly good when it came to the almost exhaustive attention to detail and timing necessary to make comedy work. The Semele excerpt was a delightful reminder that Handel’s music for comedy could be just as effective as his ability to capture depth of character in high tragedy. Handel’s command of English was not always the best, but in this case he was very well served by working with William Congreve. Congreve is probably best known for his play The Mourning Bride, which includes the couplet:
Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.
In last night’s scene those words applied perfectly to Wang’s portrayal of Juno’s reaction to Jupiter (Lei) having his dalliances with Semele (Lieberman). For her part Lieberman had cultivated a prodigious number of comic gestures, each one perfectly aligned to her coloratura fireworks. It takes considerable skill to portray a shallow and self-absorbed character, and Lieberman made it clear that Semele never realized that she was little more than Jupiter’s diversion for the moment. Congreve probably enjoyed working with Handel, since The Mourning Bride is also famous for the line:
Music has charms to soothe a savage breast
Rallo, Wang, and Liebermann clearly shared all of that joy, not only among themselves but also with those of us on audience side last night.
On the tragic side, Fasciano emerged with the most memorable performance in the title role of the excerpt from the second act of Madama Butterfly. This is the scene that leads up to the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor and includes the first appearance of the son born of Cio-Cio San after her wedding to Pinkerton. Recently, there has been a tendency to present Cio-Cio San as a woman whose passions have detached her from reality. It is almost as if the bel canto tradition of the mad scene has been expanded to fill the entire opera, although it takes the viewer a bit of time to appreciate just how precarious Cio-Cio San’s mental state really is.
Rallo seems to have decided to pursue this approach, and Fasciano was utterly fearless in following him into every one of the dark corners exposed over the course of the excerpt she performed. Under Rallo’s staging, every other character on stage had his/her individual devices to remind the audience of the underlying reality of the situation. Within the context that they set, Fasciano’s Cio-Cio San took on an almost painful sense of detachment, escalating what is too often dismissed as mere melodrama to a level of far more substantive tragedy.
Each of these two examples was thoroughly representative of Rallo’s skill in summoning up successful approaches to both the comic and the tragic in all of the scenes he staged and of the perfect chemistry he established with the ten Merolini who sang in last night’s performance.