In Review > North America

Where Angels Fear to Tread

SAN JOSE
Opera San Jose
2/7/15

In Review San Jose Where Angels hdl 515
Where Angels Fear To Tread in San José, with Baggott, Ivy and Hanscom
© Pat Kirk 2015

Irene Dalis, Opera San Jose’s beloved founder and guiding influence throughout its first thirty years, retired as general director last June and unfortunately died six months later. The company, now under the leadership of Larry Hancock, took a bold step into a new era with Mark Lanz Weiser’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, the company’s first world premiere since its 1999–2000 season. Strictly speaking, the February 7 premiere was not the first public hearing of the work; Angels was performed in a student production at the Peabody Institute in 1999. A few years ago, Dalis saw a DVD of that production, and she pushed for Opera San Jose to give Weiser’s youthful work its professional debut.

Based on E. M. Forster’s 1905 novel of the same name, Angels is a tale of cultural dislocation. Lilia Herriton, a rich English widow who is estranged from her family, moves to Italy and falls in love with a younger, middle-class Italian after knowing him for only a few days. Her brother-in-law Philip pursues her to the Continent to protect her from making any rash decisions, only to find that the handsome Gino Carella is already Lilia’s husband. After Lilia dies giving birth to Gino’s son, an English cohort of Philip, his sister Harriet and Lilia’s traveling companion, Caroline Abbott, return to Italy to rescue the child from an existence they regard as hopelessly common — an action that has tragic consequences.

Boasting a neo-Romantic tonal palette, not to mention a few memorable tunes, Weiser’s work is a contemporary opera of the most accessible, seductive kind. While the occasional sameness of texture wears thin over a long evening, it is not the music but Roger Brunyate’s libretto, overrun with exposition and momentum-eliding narrative breaks, that ultimately hobbles this work’s effect. Lillian Groag’s production created excellent moments and occasionally attempted to bridge the gaps, but the segmented storytelling proved a resilient obstacle. Weiser composed a series of instrumental interludes for the scene changes; a map of Forster’s fictional city of Monteriano was repeatedly lowered, with text on the supertitle screen reminding the audience of the passage of time (e.g., “Gino’s Room, the next day”). Considering the efficient design of Michael Ganio’s handsome settings, viewers spent more time with the map than the stagehands moving the scenery probably needed. As a consequence, the interludes soon began to feel excessive and indulgent. Weiser’s talents were best exhibited in the work’s arias and vocal ensembles, which occurred with Puccinian regularity and exhibited a similar sumptuousness, though they were not always set off with clear breaks from the intoned dialogues.

Tenor Kirk Dougherty was credible as Philip, the stuffy, withdrawn Englishman who is transformed by Italy. He managed the pages and pages of text allotted his character with a consistent level of engagement, and his singing in the arias was ardent and direct. Soprano Christie Conover gave a sympathetic performance as the opera’s heroine, Caroline Abbott. Her warm, expressive voice took flight in the critical Act II and carried through to the end. If the ovation she received during the curtain calls is any indication, Conover, a guest with the ensemble company, will be welcomed back.

Baritone Matthew Hanscom played the part of Gino with boyish energy and exuberance, his voice occasionally sounding tired from the physical exertion. Soprano Isabella Ivy made an impression as the short-lived Lilia. As Harriet, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez made several impressive entrances, brandishing a voice that would fill a much larger room if needed. Soprano Jennie Litster brought humor and continental charm to the part of the opera singer who is seen offstage and on, the latter in snippets from an opera-within-an-opera performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. Fine contributions were made by Buffy Baggott as Perfetta, Michael Boley as a Sacristan and Chloe Smart as the Padrona, an Italian innkeeper who addresses her guests in Italian-peppered English. 

Conductor Joseph Marcheso led a balanced performance, relishing both the sensuous atmospherics and the metric discipline needed for numbers such as the lovely Act I quartet, “Sunset on the Rocca.” To the delight of the audience, Marcheso had an extra voice added to the tutti ensemble that closed Act I, as the opera singer’s pet dog joined in lustily with barks and howls.

Opera San José operates according to the supposedly outmoded model of producing opera with a roster of resident artists and occasional guest stars; most of its presentations to date have been of standard repertory works, but Angels — a piece requiring a polished ensemble of singing actors — made sense for the company, which fully met the demands of this early work by an ambitious composer. While the company demonstrated that its future is now, Weiser’s opera, especially its libretto, could benefit from a recalibration before its next reboot. spacer 

JEFFERY S. MCMILLAN

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