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Old First Presbyterian Church hosts stunning full-length opera from Yefim Maizel

Poster design for next week's performance of "La Voix Humaine"
Poster design for next week's performance of "La Voix Humaine"
courtesy of the Opera Academy of California

Last night Yefim Maizel, Artistic Director of the Opera Academy of California (OAC), returned to Old First Presbyterian Church. Over the past summers OAC has used Old First to supplement the Old First Concerts summer programming with recital performances of opera arias and master classes for its students, primarily engaged in the production of full-length operas performed at Fort Mason. Last night, however, the Old First altar served as the venue for a staging of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (clowns), an opera in two acts with a prologue, presented by OAC in collaboration with "Don't be afraid…It's just Opera!!!"

Maizel is, first and foremost, a stage director, whose resume includes work both here with the San Francisco Opera and in New York with the Metropolitan Opera. His own OAC master classes have been consistently engaging, clueing the audience in on the many layers of technique that lie between refined vocal delivery and the dramatization of an art form that is fundamentally narrative in nature. Given how much he could get his students to communicate in those classes, it was no surprise that he could bring a convincing Pagliacci to the Old First altar.

To some extent this particular selection was an advantageous decision. It is about a group of itinerant players and about that hazardous border between what happens on the stage and what happens in real life. Consequently, a libretto that has much to do with telling a story through makeshift devices provided an excellent fit for the makeshift approach that Maizel took to bringing staged opera into a church sanctuary.

Mind you, the narrative was not the best fit for a sacred space. It is a blood-and-guts account of jealousy gone out of control. It is about a performer whose personal troubles overtake his acting talents. Thus, the second act begins with our observing the players dutifully going about their business performing stock commedia dell’arte situations; but it ends with three dead bodies on the stage. The first act then provides the context through which we understand how things go horribly wrong, while the prologue is delivered by the character most instrumental in bringing about this catastrophe.

All of this was so compactly staged by Maizel than one had to be reminded that the original production included a full chorus (missing from this production). Similarly, all music was provided by pianist Hatem Nadim, who also had to fill in for conductor Michel Singher, who had been called away shortly before the opera’s first performance in Berkeley. Nadim’s command of the score was solid, providing a firm foundation for his communication with the cast of seven vocalists.

Among those vocalists, baritone Spencer Dodd was probably most familiar to those following past OAC summer activities. His delivery of the prologue subtly disclosed the many hints of the pivotal role he would play in the ensuing narrative in the character of Tonio. In the “leading role” of Canio, the victim of Tonio’s machinations, tenor Christopher Sponseller matched Dodd with a firm command of his vocal chops. Somewhat weaker was soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai’s Nedda, Canio’s wife finding herself passionately involved with Silvo (baritone Igor Vieira). However, if Shehabi-Yaghmai was not always solidly on pitch, her realization of Maizel’s staging techniques was thoroughly convincing.

The only real disappointment was that last night’s performances was a one-night-only affair. Fortunately, a second production is being prepared for next week. This will be Francis Poulenc’s interpretation of Jean Cocteau’s one-act monodrama “La Voix Humaine” as an opera for solo voice. The vocalist will be OAC alumna Sophie Delphis, and music will again be provided by Nadim on piano. Once again the production will be staged by Maizel.

“La Voix Humaine” will also receive only one performance. This will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 16. The venue will again be Old First at 1751 Sacramento Street, on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. General admission will be $25, and tickets will be sold at the door. The audience will be invited to attend a reception following the performance.