West Edge Opera

West Edge Opera's Cunning Little Vixen

Weo-vixen-bows-2016* Notes * 
West Edge Opera opened its 2016 festival with The Cunning Little Vixen last night at the abandoned 16th Street train station last night in Oakland. While the orchestra could have been crisper under Maestro Jonathan Khuner, the beauty of Janacek's score comes through. Pat Diamond's production has a ton of charm and the singers did well.

In a time when there's so much awful news, it's easy to want to find an escape, whether it is the latest iteration of a blockbuster movie franchise or Pokémon GO. But what West Edge Opera has achieved here with Janacek's lightest opera represents more than mere distraction from the headlines, a refuge of sorts. The piece is a beautiful meditation on the cyclical nature of life, and though certainly sad, is also celebratory.

The reduced score by Jonathan Dove was played by a tiny orchestra of only 16 that made an impressively huge sound, sometimes overpowering the singers. There were intonation issues, but lots of spirit. Volti Chorus and Piedmont Children's Chorus looked and sounded great as well. The children are ridiculously cute.

The storybook set (pictured above) is also teeny-tiny, with an attractive forest motive that could be projected on with images of ferns, bark, brick, and even a deer head. The lighting, especially the shadows, looked quite evocative of a forest near an urban space with the gorgeous decaying train station walls. The staging is lively, and no one seemed constricted by the lack of space. The costumes are cute and not slavishly descriptive, the chickens wear yellow tutus, nary a feather in sight, but it is completely clear who and what they are.

The one misstep was perhaps the Dragonfly, a dancer in ribboned dress who flitted around between songs. Though her choreography was fine, and she managed to navigate the small space without running into anything or anyone, the dancing did not add much to the performance and seemed gratuitous.

Baritone Philip Skinner sang the Forester with warmth and humanity. Amy Foote is a piquant Vixen, her icy voice is nice and light but pierces through the orchestration. She has a lovely control of her instrument. Nikola Printz (Fox) sang with power and also has a slight strident quality that works for the role.

Joseph Meyers (The Schoolmaster), Nikolas Nackley (The Parson), and Carl King (Harasta) contributed fine performances, rounding out a strong cast.

* Tattling * 
The couple behind me talked at full volume for the beginning of the first and third acts.


West Edge Opera's Ulisse

Ulisse-2015* Notes * 
The West Edge Opera opened the third and last opera of its 2015 Festival with Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria last night. Monteverdi's opera was held at American Steel Studios in Oakland, a former pipe factory turned studio space. The industrial atelier seems at odds with the Baroque opera but the result was surprisingly intimate, and the voices reigned supreme.

The venue was founded by Karen Cusolito, whose large scale work includes the enormous dandelion currently in Uptown Oakland and the monumental work Ecstasy which was seen in The Crucible's Fire opera, at Burning Man, and on Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley. We were in a section of the building with a relatively low ceiling that worked acoustically. The windows that lined the area above the stage made for a beautiful effect as the light dimmed outside.

Director Mark Streshinsky used three platforms to create a U-shaped stage around the small Baroque ensemble. We were in close proximity to the instruments and the area around the audience was used extensively. Streshinsky was characteristically humorous, for instance Minerva brings Telemaco to Ulysses on a Vespa.

There were extensive cuts, which made the length of the piece a very manageable two hours and twenty minutes with an intermission. Conducted by Gilbert Martinez, who also played harpischord and regal, the orchestra had a dry, understated sound. This let the singers shine.

Many of the smaller parts were of a more humorous nature. Of these the suitors -- Gary Ruschman (Pisandro), Jonathan Smucker (Anfinomo), and Aaron Sorensen (Antinoo) -- and the parasite Iro -- portrayed by Ted Zoldan -- were especially funny. There was fine comic timing and all sorts of sight gags.

Ruschman and Sorensen also sang Jupiter and Neptune, and their transformations were so complete that it would be easy to think the characters had been depicted by four singers instead of two. Kindra Scharich also gave a particularly strong performance as Minerva, as her voice is powerful and resonant.

Nikolas Nackley (Ulysses) and Sara Couden (Penelope) both have expressive voices and were vocally convincing in the roles. The staging kept them in close quarters with the audience and gave the performance a forthright and honest feel. There was nowhere to hide.

* Tattling * 
This was the least stuffy of the three venues used in West Edge Opera's Festival this year. There did seem to be a lot of sawing going on in adjacent studios.


West Edge Opera's Lulu and As One

West-edge-lulu-2015* Notes *
My review of West Edge Opera's Lulu and As One is on KQED Arts.

The singing was all very strong, especially the leads. I don't focus on the voices in the review, but feel I should mention here that Brenda Patterson (Hannah After in As One) has unreal abilities, she did not seem to need to breathe.

* Tattling *
Neither venue was well-ventilated, but the Oakland Metro was worse. The woman behind me in Row B had a spray bottle and a lint brush that she used during the performance.


West Edge Opera's The End of the Affair

West-edge-opera-end-affair-2014* Notes *
West Edge Opera's summer festival continued at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley last weekend. Yesterday was the Bay Area premiere of Jake Heggie's The End of the Affair. Again West Edge Opera was able make the most of the venue, despite the fact that the space is unconventional. The production, from General Director Mark Streshinsky, is efficient. A few key props (couch, bench, lectern, and prie-dieu) are put into place by stagehands or by the singers themselves. The bombing scene at the end of Act I was particularly fine, employing painted paper on a canvas stretcher and flying bits of paper thrown by two people sitting under the stage.

The orchestra is house left, alongside the audience. This seems like it would be challenging, but conductor Jonathan Khuner managed to keep everyone together rather well. The singers were all impeccably cast. Mezzo Donna Olson was amusingly brash as Mrs. Bertram. Philip Skinner was a suitably pathetic Henry Miles. Keith Phares sounded strikingly warm as Maurice Bendrix. The contrast of the two baritone voices worked beautifully. Carrie Hennessey gave a nuanced performance as Sarah Miles. Her voice can sound prettily delicate or rather robust in accordance with the music.

As for Heggie's work, the music is agreeable and there are bubbly, bright tunes. The last scene felt slightly awkward somehow.

* Tattling *
This time around there was assigned seating in the VIP section. There was a little too much talking from the third row before the singing started in Act II.


West Edge Opera's Hydrogen Jukebox

Hydrogen-jukebox-west-edge-opera-2014* Notes *
West Edge Opera is currently performing a summer festival at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. Today was the opening of Philip Glass' chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox, with text by Allen Ginsberg. The space is not a typical performance venue, but West Edge Opera was able make suitable arrangements nonetheless. Elkhanah Pulitzer's production did not lack for ideas, in fact, the activity on stage seemed ceaseless. It was especially charming when paper airplanes were thrown at the audience, but there were also moments when it may have been more appropriate to take in the words and music without quite so much movement and busyness. The narrator, Howard Swain, was rather energetic.

For the most part the musicians were above and to the sides of the stage, though conductor David Möschler descended a ladder to play the piano in front of the stage for "Song #6 from Wichita Vortex Sutra." There were times when the balance was slightly off, as when the percussion sounded somewhat anemic in Act I. The singers gave completely committed performances. Tenor Jonathan Blalock sounded sweet and mezzo Nicole Takesono sang prettily. Bass Kenneth Kellogg sounded strong but did not overwhelm. Molly Mahoney (Soprano II) had a nice richness, while the resonances of Sara Duchovnay (Soprano I) were pleasing. Baritone Efrain Solis sang hauntingly. His voice has warmth but was beautifully ethereal at the beginning and ending of the piece.

* Tattling *
I managed to snag a front row seat at the last moment and had little to complain about as far as my adjacent audience members are concerned.


West Edge Opera's Vanessa

West-edge-opera-vanessa-2013* Notes *
West Edge Opera performed Vanessa (Marie Plette as Vanessa and Nikola Printz as Erika pictured left, photograph by Jeremy Knight) last weekend on Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage. The space is quite intimate and this gave the performances a special sort of immediacy. Musically, this was gratifying, but seeing the safety pins or rips in ill-fitting costumes was less welcome.

The production was fairly simple given that the singers shared the stage with the orchestra. The latter sounded quite bold under the direction of Maestro Jonathan Khuner. The chorus, Chora Nova, sounded lovely.

Most of the singing was good. Philip Skinner is an excellent performer, and his amusing mannerisms and warmth worked well for the Doctor. Malin Fritz (Baroness) has wonderful facial expressions. Nikola Printz sang a convincing Erika. Her dresses were most awkward and one wished she had covered the tattoo on her inner left arm. Likewise, Jonathan Boyd (Anatol) should have taken off his wedding band for Sunday's performance. Boyd has a bright sound, and only seemed strained on two or three occasions. Marie Plette sang the title role with a certain fierceness yet vulnerability. Her voice is icy.

* Tattling *
Because West Edge Opera can no longer afford the space at El Cerrito High School, I felt that I should get a VIP seat to express my support of the company. Unfortunately, because of certain inconsiderate people and the open seating policy, I had to move two times. Perhaps because I appear small, large people often choose to sit next to me. This is fine if I am not compelled to compress myself in order not to be in contact with them. Both people in question happily had their elbows in my ribs so that I was intimidated out of my seat twice.


West Edge Opera's L'incoronazione di Poppea

West-edge-opera-poppea-2013-2* Notes *
West Edge Opera's L'incoronazione di Poppea (Act II with Christine Brandes and Emma McNairy pictured left, photograph by Jamie Buschbaum) closed last Sunday at the Performing Arts Theater at El Cerrito High School. Maestro Gilbert Martinez lead half a dozen period instrumentalists in a neat, compressed performance. The violins had a slight tendency to be out of tune, but otherwise the playing was crisp.

The singing was strong. Bryan Thorsett made for a funny Arnalta, his singing is lovely, and one only wanted to hear more from him. Ryan Belongie sang Ottone with grace. Tonia D'Amelio was a charming Drucilla. Erin Neff made for an incisive-toned Ottavia. Emma McNairy was a cheery, girlish Poppea. Her sound is bright and sweet. As Nerone, Christine Brandes' sound is a bit compressed at the top, and somewhat harsh, but this was perfectly fine for the role.

The production, directed by Mark Streshinsky, offered many repeated images. One appreciated how this did help condense the action and cut down on time needed for scene changes.

* Tattling *
I was entirely unable to find my seat, O-A17. As it turns out, they had taken the seat out to accommodate patrons in wheelchairs. The house manager was very kind about the whole thing, apologizing, and also re-seating me nearby.


West Edge Opera L'incoronazione di Poppea Preview

West-edge-opera-poppea-2013-1* Notes *
West Edge Opera's L'incoronazione di Poppea opens tonight at the Performing Arts Theater at El Cerrito High School and runs through Sunday. The final dress rehearsal (Act I with Emma McNairy and Bryan Thorsett pictured left, photograph by Jamie Buschbaum) was held on Tuesday. The performances are a collaboration with MusicSources, and conductor Gilbert Martinez leads a small ensemble of period instrumentalists. Taken together, the sound of the two harpsichords, theorbo, triple harp, viola da gamba, and two violins is rather dry and spare. The cuts pare the opera down to a mere two hours, which distills the story into its essentials.

The singing is consistent all around. The cast includes Christine Brandes (Nerone), Emma McNairy (Poppea), Erin Neff (Ottavia), Tonia D'Amelio Drucilla), Ryan Belongie (Ottone), Bryan Thorsett (Arnalta), and Paul Thompson (Seneca).

Director Mark Streshinsky offers a production set in 1962, complete with pill box hats and square handbags. Much video projection is employed, which is occasionally dizzying, but keeps the scenes moving without having to physically change the sets.