Pocket Opera

No Love Allowed at Pocket Opera

Pocket-opera-liebesverbot2022* Notes *
Last month Pocket Opera put on three performances of Wagner's No Love Allowed (Das Liebesverbot). I attended the delightful May 15 matinée at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. The English language production had a lot of charm and some beautiful voices, and though I did miss Pocket Opera's founder Donald Pippin's wry comments, his sense of humor came through translation of the libretto.

The two leads (pictured, photograph courtesy of Pocket Opera) were very strong. As Isabella, soprano Leslie Sandefur has a sprightly, metallic sound, while tenor Michael Dailey (Luzio) was bright and legato.

The rest of the enormous cast was likewise filled with fine voices. Baritone Spencer Dodd was suitably villainous as the hypocritical Viceroy Friedrich, his Act II aria was nuanced and tormented. As his abandoned wife Mariana, soprano Aléxa Anderson sang smoothly and with a delicate prettiness. Her duet with Sandefur at the convent in Act I was very lovely. Tenor Justin Brunette as Isabella's licentious and imperiled brother Claudio had some soaring high notes.

Other notable contributions came from mezzo-soprano Sonia Gariaeff as libertine Dorella who had a saucy good humor and baritone Michael Grammer as Brighella, captain of the watch, whose deep, dark voice embraced the silliness of his role. There are nine other voices that I haven't gone over, but suffice it to say they did well, especially with the raucous carnival scene in Act II.

Music director and conductor Jonathan Khuner lead the Pocket Philharmonic and played the piano. Since there were a less than a dozen musicians, mistakes were rather exposed. But it was great fun to hear this rarity in person nonetheless.

* Tattling * 
One had to show proof of vaccination to attend and most of the audience members were masked. There are distinctly fewer watch alarms at the hour these days, perhaps everyone has switched to smart watches. There was some chatter but no electronic sounds were noted.

Don Giovanni at Pocket Opera

Don-giovanni-pocket-opera-2020* Notes *
Pocket Opera opened the 2020 season with Don Giovanni yesterday afternoon at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. The singing and staging of this English language performance was one of the most engaging I've experienced of Mozart's dark comedy.

Donald Pippin, the Artistic Director Emeritus of Pocket Opera, has retired and this is the first performance of the company I've seen without his whimsical commentary. While I did miss him, his stamp is still certainly seen in the translation of the libretto.

The opera started off more or less as a local company production, some very suspect playing from the tiny orchestra and fine singing from a strong cast. Director Jane Erwin's work is straightforward. Mozart's music leaves the eleven instrumentalists very exposed, every sour note or lack of unison was obvious.

Music director and conductor César Cañón made an earnest effort but there were moments of complete and painful chaos. Cañón's piano playing was sprightly and there were times when the Pocket Philharmonic managed to pull it together.

The cast is talented. Bass Jason Sarten is highly believable as the Commendatore, especially when he is meant to be a statue, his movements were spot on. Baritone Mitchell Jones is charming as Masetto, as is soprano Sara LeMesh as Zerlina. It was very interesting to hear LeMesh in something so different her spectacular turn as Bess in West Edge Opera's Breaking the Waves last summer. Her voice has a wonderful vitality to it but is always precise.

Mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos begins with an appropriately hysterical tone as Donna Elvira, her desperation seems real and she grew more and more plaintive by the end. In contrast, Rabihah Davis Dunn was a well-controlled Donna Anna, her soprano is clear and flexible. As Don Ottavio, tenor Kevin Gino is sturdy and open. Baritone Spencer Dodd is a warm and winsome Leporello while baritone Anders Fröhlich radiates danger and menace as Don Giovanni.

By the beginning of the Act I finale I had pretty much heard and seen what I had expected, but when Don Ottavio brandishes a gun (which is in the libretto but I've rarely if ever seen on stage) I was snapped out of my complacency. The stakes seem very genuine, Don Giovanni's use of Leporello as a human shield actually makes sense, as is the latter's anger at the beginning of Act II.

The momentum of the drama wasn't lost after the intermission, and the handling of Don Giovanni's descent to hell was skillful. Fröhlich tears off his shirt as he is tormented by the invisible chorus of demons, then he himself is unseen by the rest of the cast. Leporello picks up the cast-off clothing as he explains himself in the concluding ensemble.

* Tattling * 
There were the usual watch alarms at the hour. The audience looked full, I only saw one empty seat in the sixth row.

Eugene Onegin at Pocket Opera

2013_08_25 PocketOpera_22653* Notes *
Pocket Opera performed an English language version of Eugene Onegin yesterday at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. Donald Pippin is utterly charming, and his narration and translation of the text were both lively. The production is likewise cute and accessible. Though the playing was not entirely together and the musicians were far from being perfectly in tune, everyone performed with a lot of heart. Part of the problem was that the orchestra was behind the singers, creating a great deal of chaos as far as synchronization. The singing too had flaws, there were swallowed notes, some shrillness or thinness at the tops of certain voices, as one would expect from such a small, local opera company. Nevertheless, there were more than a few moments of intimacy and beauty, and some of these very same imperfect voices were able to sound quite lovely. The chorus was lilting and did well with all the scene changes. Though hearing this opera on a small scale like this might seem a bit peculiar, it is appealing and may make one appreciate the work with new ears.

* Tattling * 
There was a particular person who blocked the entire aisle with his walker, shoving my seat which was neither directly in front of him nor adjacent to his. Since this was fire hazard, an usher had to deliberate with him about putting it somewhere else in the hall during the performance. This same person was unable to understand make out the words as they were sung and unable to see the supertitles. He yawned loudly and at the end of Act I, nearly pulled out the chair under the person in front of him as he used it to stand up. He had the good sense to leave at intermission.

La belle Hélène at Pocket Opera

* Notes *
Pocket Opera opened the 2009 season with Offenbach's La belle Hélène last month in Berkeley, with subsequent  performances in San Francisco. The production was almost cloyingly sweet. Everyone was perfectly adorable, especially the charming pianist and narrator Donald Pippin. The musical values were appropriate for the small venue. Megan Stetson certainly made for a beautiful Hélène, though her voice perhaps lacked richness.

* Tattling * 
The audience whispered a good deal. I had my fill of Offenbach for the week and decided not to hear Berkeley Opera's Tales of Hoffman.

Pocket Opera's Martha

Martha* Notes *
Pocket Opera's 30th season opened yesterday with Friedrich von Flotow's Martha. This company presents opera in English translation with a narrator, a small cast, and a refreshing unpretentiousness. Donald Pippin, the founder and artistic director of Pocket Opera, does all the translations, narrations, and plays piano accompaniment. For Martha, he lead the 8 others in the ensemble of strings and woodwinds.

There were only 13 singers, all of whom were competent. As the Florence Gould Theater is rather small, with only 316 seats, volume was not an issue. Marcelle Dronkers wasn't terribly impressive in the title role, but she did have her moments. Tenor Brian Thorsett sang Lionel sweetly, though his diction could be improved. His voice is lovely, but he doesn't seem grounded in his body somehow. Julia Ulehla made a pretty Nancy, and her voice was nice despite some of her unclear arpeggios.

Perhaps the weakest part of the production was Willa Anderson's costuming, especially in the very first scene. The dresses the ladies wore looked like random prom gowns from the 1980's. Also, the hairstyling could have been improved. Dronkers' bangs and side-ponytail were not becoming to the role.

* Tattling *
The photographer's camera was somewhat loud as he took pictures, but this was nothing compared to the cellular phone that rang at least 10 times during Act IV.