West Edge Opera

West Edge Opera's The Threepenny Opera

Weo-threepenny-stage-2019* Notes * 
West Edge Opera performed an English language version of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera for a second time yesterday afternoon. The darkly funny piece features much bawdy humor with some fine singing, though somewhat marred by the location of the theater.

What was clear right away was this is a play with songs rather than an opera. The opening number, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife," looked very pretty. I enjoy Christine Crook's costume design, which has a vintage circus feel, lots of black and white stripes, red and pink accents, and lovely lacy details. The singing here ensemble members (pictured with Sarah Coit as Jenny and Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, photograph by Cory Weaver) lacked punch, perhaps because it was so hot at the Bridge Yard that the back of the stage was left open, as were some of the doors or windows at the entrance. Again, there was much noise from the highway and even a helicopter during the second half.

The staging is very much in keeping with what director Elkhannah Pulitzer has presented at West Edge before. There's lots of curtains used to hide the stage when scenes are being switched out, lots of attractive tableaux, and plenty of people in various states of undress. I am not sure the circus artists were used to the best effect, any acrobatics that appeared were pretty subtle. But the finale was quite fun and involved a tricycle rather than a horse and a confetti gun.

Weill's music was conducted by David Möschler, who also played the piano and harmonium with six other instrumentalists, all except the trumpeter used more than one instrument. There were times when the orchestra was ahead of the singers, but the charming music did come through and I liked hearing it even if it seemed less than primary.

All the acting was very strong. Tenor Derek Chester is winning as Macheath and has an impressive physicality, he spends much of his time on stage without a shirt on. He was hard to hear at times, especially when he descended into the orchestra pit at a certain point, which probably was only visible and fully audible from the first few rows of the theater. That said, Chester is very charismatic, and it was easy to see why all the young women in this work are crazy for the character.

Weo-threepenny-singers-2019Soprano Maya Kherani (pictured with Derek Chester, photograph by Cory Weaver) is an appealing Polly Peachum, very much in command of herself and at the same time a brooding adolescent on the couch in a hoodie at her parent's house. Some of her sibilants were harsh, especially when speaking, but her voice is brightly pleasant. Her fellow sopranos Sarah Coit (Jenny) and Erin O'Meally (Lucy) were both distinct, Coit was more measured and placid, while O'Meally was brasher.

Both baritone Jonathan Spencer as Peachum and bass-baritone Robert Stafford as Tiger Brown were funny, Spencer was a touch quiet while Stafford was more robust. The person who stole the show was definitely mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as Mrs. Peachum, she's great at physical comedy and her voice cuts through the orchestra with ease.

* Tattling * 
The performance was sold out and there was a lot more talking for this compared to the other two operas this season.

One of my friends was deeply disappointed the piece was not being done in the original German and he left during intermission.

West Edge Opera's Breaking the Waves

Weo-breaking-waves-set-2019* Notes * 
Yesterday West Edge Opera gave the West Coast premiere of Missy Mazzoli's compelling Breaking the Waves. The bleak plot based on the film by Lars von Trier makes for good theater and the singing was powerful, especially from the lead, soprano Sara LeMesh.

Set in Scotland in the 1970s, the dark narrative concerns a young woman who marries a Norwegian from outside her Calvinist community. Mazzoli's music deftly weaves together sweeping vocal lines and many orchestral textures, including an electric guitar that nearly jarred me from my seat at first. I liked how she could use sounds that are referred to in the text or part of the setting without being trite, whether it is church bells or oil drills. She skillfully juggles different voices singing together, like the duet in Act I where Bess asks Jan to quit his job on the rig and stay with her that turns into a trio when her mother threatens to send her back to the hospital if she can't control her "moods."

The space, the Bridge Yard, was less of an issue for this opera for some reason. I don't know if it is because I'd never heard this music before, and had no expectations of how it should sound, or if these singers simply had voices that could cut through the orchestration better. In any case, soprano Sara LeMesh (pictured with chorus, photograph by Cory Weaver) has a piercing yet ethereal sound that works well for the girlish Bess. This character is central to the piece, and LeMesh is sympathetic. It could have easily gone the other way, Bess is co-dependent, depressed, and pathetic. She suffers relentlessly but perhaps because she is thinking of others rather than herself, she is engaging rather than annoying.

Weo-breaking-waves-closeup-2019The rest of the cast supported LeMesh well, nearly all the characters have many different sides and get to portray a range of emotions. From baritone Robert Wesley Mason, whose Jan is heartbreaking, to tenor Alex Boyer who plays Dr. Richardson with convincing sensitivity. Bass-baritone Brandon Bell is much needed comic relief as Jan's friend Terry in Act I, and shows a gentler side in Acts II and III. Soprano Kristen Clayton is imposing as Bess' mother Mrs. McNeill, but her love for her daughter is clear in the end. Most impressive is mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich (pictured with Sara LeMesh, photograph by Cory Weaver) as sister-in-law Dodo McNeill. Her tender warmth and sturdy voice is persuasive.

* Tattling * 
I recognized quite a few people in the audience and even on the stage, it seemed like most of my Bay Area opera-going friends were in attendance. There was little to complain about as far as electronic noise, there was some rustling behind me in Act II.

My companions, like me, had not seen the film on which this opera is based and were somewhat confused about where it was set and why the vowels were so odd. There is a line of Scots Gaelic in Act I, but I guess not everyone is up on Celtic languages, and I don't know that the mostly North American singers were exactly on point with the Scottish accent either.

West Edge Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice

Weo-orfeo-dancers-2019* Notes * 
West Edge Opera presented Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice last night at yet another new venue. Unfortunately, the space, once a repair facility for rail cars, is not acoustically suited for unamplified music.

In the past decade, West Edge Opera has performed everywhere from a high school theater in El Cerrito to a Bart station in Berkeley. The decrepit Oakland train station used in 2015 and 2016 was by far the most cool location, while last year's performances at a former Ford plant in Richmond had breathtaking views but was difficult to get to from San Francisco.

This year's venue, the Bridge Yard, has a fantastic views of the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, and the Port of Oakland. The industrial building dates from 1938, and has an edgy charm. However, it deadens sound, something about the shape of the space takes away from the resonances of both instruments and singers. Part of the problem is certainly the lack of back to the building, it is simply open. Another issue is the proximity to the highway, the white noise of vehicles takes the bite out of sounds.

Director KJ Dahlaw, a non-binary dance artist whose pronouns are "they" and "them," utilizes half a dozen dancers (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) in their production. The choreography reminded me of yoga combined with Graham technique. The dance costumes were beige unitards that could be festooned with tulle, ribbons, or sleeves and wig changes to switch characters from wedding celebrants to furies to blessed spirits. Mikoko Uesugi's minimal set is elegant, simply a few huge panels of transparent cloth that could be transformed with lighting.

Christine Brandes, best known as a soprano, took the helm of the orchestra. The proceedings were restrained and sedate, it is utterly beautiful music, but somehow the musicians seemed to lose momentum in Act II, and "Che farò senza Euridice" was particularly muddled. There were lovely moments, especially with the chorus, who stood in the pit and were able to unify the music.

Weo-orfeo-singers-2019All three principals (Maria Valdes, Shawnette Sulker, and Nikola Printz pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver) are well known to Bay Area audiences. Soprano Shawnette Sulker cuts a dramatic figure as Amore in an asymmetrical tulle collar and lace corset. Her bright bird-like voice cuts through the best of the trio, but even she was dampened by the venue.

As Euridice, soprano Maria Valdes looked like a sweet doll. The brilliance of her sound was not apparent, but she did give a tender performance. Her interactions with mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz (Orfeo) were convincing. In this production Orfeo is non-binary, wearing both a gown with bow-tie and men's wear (a vest with pinstriped trousers) that plays up feminine curves. It isn't a stretch at all for opera, women play men all the time after all, and queering this story is perfectly reasonable and even anticlimactic. Printz has the stature for the role, being tall and athletic with a clear, strong voice. Some of her lower register was undercut by the challenging space, but I could always hear her.

* Tattling * 
There was light talking at the beginning of the opera, a watch alarm at 9pm, and titters at the super titles. Mostly the audience members were very good, though I did not appreciate a loud crash from something dropping house right in the middle of Act II.

West Edge Opera's Quartett

Weo-quartett-2018* Notes * 
West Edge Opera's third production this summer is Luca Francesconi's Quartett, based on the 1980 play by Heiner Müller, which in turn is based on Les Liaisons dangereuses. Both music and drama here are utterly disturbing.

The piece debuted at La Scala a scant seven years ago, but has seen great success, and has been done in Vienna, London, and even Buenos Aires. The work requires only two singers playing ex-lovers Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, but they role-play each other as well as virtuous Madame de Tourvel and virginal Cécile de Volanges, victims manipulated by the pair.

Director Elkhanah Pulitzer keeps everything clear by use of onstage costume changes, even though there are many scenes in this one act opera, and the English text can get lost in the layers of music. Chad Owens' set is unique: there are two dressing rooms on the left and right above two showers, the dressing rooms can be assessed by either ladders or a steeply raked platform. In the center is a long dining table for eight and around the orchestra runs a strip of stage as well.

The characters go around and around in circles, repeating the same patterns several times in the 85 minute piece. They are powdered white from head to toe, but the physical demands of the staging which include sliding down, climbing up, and running on that steep incline definitely wore the makeup off. The costumes, almost all white, had a lot of impact. I especially liked the imposing Marquise's nearly vertical tulle and ostrich feather head dress.

Pulitzer highlights the vanity and cruelty of the pair, the Marquise has a phone that she takes photos with that are projected onto the incline and often garishly reappear in the negative. There is much sex and violence, it is all highly artificial in this staging, but somehow the grotesqueness is very effective.

The music seems difficult, Francesconi studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, and the piece requires electronics, a live orchestra, and a pre-recorded one with a chorus. There was a lot of shimmers, buzzes, and elaborate percussion. I spent a lot of time looking at the supertitles, as it could be quite hard to understand the words, which come from the play but translated into English and expounded on by the composer. The musicians, lead by Maestro John Kennedy, looked like they were concentrating intensely, and as far as I could tell everything came off the way it was supposed to. Soprano Heather Buck and baritone Hadleigh Adams both sounded and looked great. Buck's voice could be angelic or dangerous, while Adams has a pleasant, lyrical tone.

* Tattling * 
Someone outside the theater was having a loud conversation on her cell phone right before the music started, causing a few giggles from the audience members, otherwise they hardly made a peep, so intent were they on the opera.

West Edge Opera's Pelléas et Mélisande

Weo-pandm2018 * Notes * 
Nomadic West Edge Opera is performing this summer in yet another alternative space, this time in Richmond at the Craneway Conference Center, once a Ford plant. The opening show is Debussy's very wonderfully weird Pelléas et Mélisande. The music is utterly beautiful, the singing was very good, and the production sleek and inventive.

The Craneway is right on the water, and has a glorious view of San Francisco. The building houses the Rosie the Riveter Museum, as it was the site of shipyards with female workers during World War II. A space upstairs was transformed into a theater with much black fabric, platforms, and extensive structures for lighting, which needed its own generator as the building's electrical system was inadequate for this. Unlike previous venues in the last few years, this one does have running water and real bathrooms.

Director Keturah Stickann, very much in keeping with this opera company, did a lot with very little, and her production worked incredibly well. The set (pictured, photograph by Cory Weaver), designed by Chad Owens, is a wall with five openings, and it was impressive how these were used as places to project onto screens or serve as doors or bring in props to the scene. The costumes had a medieval look but were often festooned with rivets.

Maestro Jonathan Khuner kept the small orchestra together, and created a big sound. The singing was lovely. Mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom is an otherworldly Mélisande, her high notes soar and her low ones are deeply rooted. She also was mysterious and nymph-like in her acting. Her Pelléas, tenor David Blalock, may have been a bit more wooden, but his voice is bright and strong. In contrast, baritone Efraín Solís truly embodied the role of Golaud. From grave and sad to crazed and jealous, Solís was completely convincing, and he sounded great, very warm and sympathetic.

* Tattling * 
There were technical difficulties with one of the four supertitle screens which made the opera start late. It was not resolved and those in that area had to move to see the titles.

A young woman in Row D 26 took a picture of Act III, Scene 1, when Mélisande's hair spilled out of the tower. The young man behind her texted. The woman next to me fell asleep during an intense moment of the opera in Act II.

I wish I could go to this opera again, there are two more performances on August 12 and 17, but am overbooked and will be out of town.

West Edge Opera's L'arbore di Diana

Arbore-di-diana-2017* Notes * 
West Edge Opera has found a new home at Pacific Pipe, an abandoned warehouse in Oakland this year, after the City of Oakland denied permits public events at the 16th Street Station, where the company performed the previous two seasons. Since I had a baby a scant 12 weeks ago, I decided to attend only one of the three productions, choosing Vicente Martín y Soler's L'arbore di Diana. It turned out very well for me, the music is delightful, the production amusing, the conducting crisp, and the singers fantastic.

Martín, a contemporary of Mozart, is best known today for the quote of "O quanto in sì bel giubilo" from Una cosa rara at the second act of Don Giovanni. Interestingly, both these works and L'arbore di Diana are by the same librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. The music of L'arbore di Diana is jaunty and attractive, and the small orchestra played nicely under the direction of Maestro Robert Mollicone, who is on the music staff of San Francisco Opera and was an Adler Fellow. The fortepiano, played by Mollicone, was amplified, and this was disorienting (especially at first) because the sound came from a different direction than the instrument. There were times when the singers and orchestra were slightly off from each other, but for the most part, the playing was pretty clean.

Director Mark Streshinsky is at his best with this sort of divinely silly opera. The tree of the title is made of ladders and pink tulle, complete with fruit to pelt unchaste nymphs. The fruit are the dancers of the Sarah Berges Dance Company, and their costumes, emerald lame leotards each emblazoned with a single golden breast, pink areola, and multicolored flashing light as a nipple, are hilarious. The dancers mutely comment on the action, their expressions and gestures are priceless.

The singing was likewise excellent. The trio of nymphs (pictured above with dancers) included soprano Maya Kherani (Britomarte), mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney (Clizia), and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss (Chloe), who all have beautiful voices and sang wonderfully together. Tenor Kyle Stegall's voice rang out clearly, even though the venue doesn't have ideal acoustics at all, hardly having walls. His Endimione, love interest of Diana, is convincing, as Stegall is tall and handsome.

The dueling sopranos Christine Brandes (Cupid) and Nikki Einfeld (Diana) were no less appealing. While I'm not a fan of Brandes' incisive sound, it works in this space, and was a good foil for Einfeld, whose flexible voice is nothing short of gorgeous. Einfeld can also pull off wearing a floor length blue sequined gown with fluffy blonde wig and still look slim and perfectly self-possessed. I was impressed by her coloratura and happy to hear her in something so different from Opera Parallèle's Flight earlier in the year.


* Tattling * 
I bought an expensive ticket for this opera so that I could have an assigned seat rather than being in the general admission section. It was worth the price for me, as I was not next to anyone in Row B Seat 24 and did not have to get to the venue early to stake out a good seat.

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.