.A Week at the Opera

Berkeley bursts into song.

Everyone knows summer brings more Shakespeare than you can shake a spear at, but this May turns out to be opera season in Berkeley. Not only is Berkeley Rep presenting the Beaumarchais/Mozart mashup Figaro, but Berkeley Opera is doing a double bill of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges at the Julia Morgan, and Cal Performances presents San Francisco Opera’s West Coast premiere of The Little Prince at Zellerbach Hall. This weekend Oakland Opera Theater reconstructs Duke Ellington’s unfinished opera Queenie Pie, and next week Shotgun Players premiere a semi-operatic treatment of Beowulf.

Beaumarchais’ 1775 play The Barber of Seville and its sequel The Marriage of Figaro aren’t as well known today as the Rossini and Mozart operas they inspired, although Walnut Creek’s Center REP performed the latter play in 2006. In a style reminiscent of its own Don Juan Giovanni, which played Berkeley Rep in 1994, Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune combines the dramatic and operatic versions of the Figaro cycle into a stunning tour de force.

The original ran 4.5 hours, so the fact that this Figaro clocks in at under three hours is impressive, the more so because that time flies. Barber is represented only in passing with a few obligatory Figaro Figaro Figaros, but the framing device is inspired by The Guilty Mother, the largely forgotten third Figaro play. Beaumarchais’ original is concerned with an illicit tryst between two Marriage characters, but Jeune Lune takes advantage of the 1792 play’s setting to imagine an older Figaro and Count hiding out from the French Revolution.

Tattered, lost, and sniping at each other, the elder Count and Fig are figures right out of Waiting for Godot, performed magnificently by co-adapters Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp, with bits of hilarious slapstick and wry commentary. The Marriage story is told in flashback. The bittersweet comedy of the framing story interacts beautifully with the sprightly antics, and if the ending doesn’t tie them together quite as satisfyingly, that’s only to say the production is merely excellent.

Bradley Greenwald is delightfully roguish as the younger Count, and Bryan Boyce is a strapping if straight-laced young Figaro. Jennifer Baldwin Peden is breathtaking as the melancholy Countess Rosina. Her sister Christina Baldwin is soulfully seductive as horny page Cherubino, and Momoko Tanno is a lively Susanna, fending off the Count’s advances.

Serrand’s staging makes clever use of live video in lieu of elaborate sets, and closeups of Epp’s face reveal layers of haunted regret in the long-suffering servant/trickster Figaro and the deep hurt and longing in Peden’s Rosina. While it adds some sumptuous visual tableaux, the video feels simply like a pleasant extra element, helpful supertitles aside. The projections in Berkeley Opera’s double bill, on the other hand, are deeply integrated into the action.

Naomi Kramer’s swirling suggestions of the hidden secrets of Bluebeard’s Castle are especially appreciated in a very static opera. Undeterred by whispers of the bloody fate of his previous wives, Bluebeard’s bride Judith enters his castle and sets about opening locked doors and describing their disturbing contents as Bluebeard warns her to leave well enough alone. Bluebeard was a dreary affair when I’d seen it in its native Budapest, Bartók’s music all atmosphere and that atmosphere all gloom, so the emotional resonance found in Berkeley Opera’s staging is a welcome surprise. Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss and baritone Paul Murray give moving performances as the unhappy couple, and the orchestra led by musical director Jonathan Khuner makes Bartók’s dissonance flow like bracingly acidic wine.

Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a delight, in which a naughty child is chastened after a destructive tantrum by the objects he’s broken, the animals he’s tormented, and even the math homework he’s neglecting. Phil Lowery’s lively staging features pleasing bits of ballet choreographed by Cecily Khuner, playful animations by Ariel, and puppetry by Magical Moonshine Theatre, voiced by singers on the sidelines. It’s a perfect antidote to Bluebeard‘s oppressive atmosphere. Ten-year-old Patrick Dowd’s voice cracked frequently as the boy on opening night, but on the whole it’s a sparkling production of an amusing comic opera.

Tovi Wayne has more convincing golden curls as the Little Prince, but despite magical production values Rachel Portman’s opera doesn’t seem nearly as magical. The music is as accessible as one might expect of a children’s opera by the Oscar-winning composer of Emma. There are some boisterously bouncy baritone parts, such as the dance of the villainous baobab trees, but other parts swell into sentimentality. The colorful characters of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book come out loud and clear in this visually appealing production designed by the late Maria Bjørnson, but Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright have changed the matter-of-fact tone of the original to be so rhapsodic that it might as well be a Christmas pageant. Repeated reminders that grown-ups don’t understand anything are appropriate to a piece that’s a wonderland for tots but less wondrous for their chaperones.


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