Last night I was at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the first in New Century Chamber Orchestra's latest concerts, their first foray into operatic repertory. They programmed wisely, starting with a selection of opera-related pieces and then, after intermission, concluding with a Donizetti rarity: Rita, a roughly hour-long comedy for three singers (rescored and edited for New Century by Peter Grunberg, and staged by Eugene Brancoveanu).
Fortunately we were spared any chat from the stage and the first part opened immediately with music, the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, arranged by Clarice Assad, followed by the Prestissimo from Verdi's String Quartet in E Minor, then the Meditation from Massenet's Thais, arranged by Clarice Assad, with NCCO leader Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as the violin soloist, and closing with the Overture to Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, arranged by Mats Lidstrom. The orchestra members clearly enjoy playing together, and cast a melodious spell in these popular favorites, the fleeter, more comic selections alternating with the more poignant. The Verdi is probably the least familiar, though parts of it sounded very Verdian, as if these embryonic slashes would swell into something like a chorus from Ballo. Salerno-Sonnenberg as Thais provided an inward Meditation, a searching contemplation that clearly affected some of the audience, who stood up to applaud when that selection was finished. The part of the Meditation usually taken by (I think) a harp was replaced by (I think) a xylophone, whose comparatively less ethereal sound provided an interesting and contrasting earthward pull and comment on the soaring violin. [UPDATE: I am reliably informed (see the comments) that it was a marimba, not a xylophone, that replaced the harp.] The Fledermaus Overture was very pleasant and I was surprised at how familiar I was with it, since though I understand many people really love Fledermaus I am not among them. It could maybe have sparkled a little more, but it was enjoyable, which is all that I can ask and usually more than I get from that particular operetta. So a very enjoyable first part, about thirty-forty minutes, preparing us with arching beauty and dashing tunefulness for bel canto comedy.
I was actually a little surprised at how much fun the performance of Rita was. To get some complaints out of the way, the concert, in the middle of the work week, started at the ridiculous hour of 8:00, which is probably why most members of the audience looked as if they were retired. And the second half started with a useless video, in which Salerno-Sonnenberg went on about wanting to do something operatic with the group and choosing the Donizetti because it was manageable and then warning us about the subject matter ("spousal abuse," and though they didn't come right out and say it I'm going to guess that NCCO is, in fact, opposed to it) but it's a farce so it's all OK (I was relieved that the term "politically incorrect" was not used) and that was intercut with the director giving away crucial elements of the plot. What was the point of all this? We're already sitting there, waiting – we don't need to be persuaded that this is worth seeing, we don't need behind-the-scenes banalities. Why not let us discover the piece on our own? We'll find out soon enough what it's about. It's rare enough that we see an opera where we don't know semi-quaver by semi-quaver what's going to happen next; please, let it unfold as it was meant to, in real time on stage in front of our ears and eyes. Last NCCO concert I went to they performed the Four Seasons, prefaced with one of these unnecessary videos, in which different members of the orchestra talked about parts of the music they liked, which is very nice but I'm more interested in the parts I like. Anyway once they actually started performing the Vivaldi, there was bustle and applause from the audience after each segment until the third or fourth time it happened when Salerno-Sonnenberg, without looking at the audience, lifted her bow off the violin and pointed it at us, commanding silence. It was a dramatic (and effective) gesture, but if you're going to get all chatty and personal from the stage you can't blame the audience if they take you at your word and think they're at a cocktail party and don't pay much attention. (And in fact the audience was noisier during Rita than during the first part of the concert.)
So I was sitting there, having been told plot twists I had carefully avoided reading about, wondering glumly if farce was my least favorite form of comedy, or just close to my least favorite, and – OK, I'm going to give away some plot elements here; to be both clear and obscure, I'll say that the basic plot of Rita is a comic variant of Enoch Arden – reflecting that I don't find "spousal abuse" any more amusing when it's the man who's being abused. Then the performance started and it was, as I said, a surprising amount of fun. Brancoveanu, who directed and designed the staging and prepared the English-language spoken parts between the musical numbers (which were sung in Italian, with surtitles), is well known around here for his beautiful baritone and strong stage presence, but he's just as talented on the other side of the stage lights; the staging was filled with clever, witty touches (starting with the cover of the program, which showed the three singers in a pose reminiscent of the Lubitsch/Ben Hecht film Design for Living – OK, there's another plot tease for you). Not everything worked brilliantly, but most of it did, and there was nothing dull or wrong-headed. Lots of it was surprisingly funny, like a slow-motion boxing match between the men. He also avoided the trap of making the stage business so busy and constant that shtick overwhelmed the performance, something I've seen happen with bel canto comedy fairly often (looking at you, Barbiere). It's too bad they didn't have a raised stage for the singers, the way Philharmonia Baroque does when they stage things at First Congregational, but it was all visible enough with a bit of neck-craning.
The staging was solidly grounded in the personalities and performances of the three excellent leads, soprano Maria Valdes as Rita, tenor Thomas Glenn as Beppe, and baritone Efraín Solís as Gasparo. All are young and good-looking enough so that the strong physical attraction behind their abused/abuser byplay was clear. Clever use was made of the physical differences between the two men; Glenn, who starts out as the hen-pecked husband, has a slighter build than does Solís, and his clear and distinctive tenor is not as large a voice as Solís's baritone, and those distinctions made part of the comedy. Glenn was hilariously meek as the opera opened, dressed, ironically, in a wifebeater, as he obediently painted his wife's toenails. His bearing and voice opened up when he realized he had a chance to escape her (the opera was of course written before divorce became a realistic possible solution for unhappy marriages). In a very funny bit he appropriates Gasparo's jacket (which he stuffs with things to create the appearance of muscles), and his dark glasses, and his swagger, and also a bit of Lucia's mad scene. Both Solís and Valdes are charming enough to get away with their "abusive behaviors," which seem like pre-emptive attempts not to be overwhelmed by their attraction for each other. Gasparo had some funny interplay with the orchestra, when he asked for something romantic and Salerno-Sonnenberg obliged with a brief reprise of the Meditation from Thais until he stopped her and demanded something italiano. Beautiful singing and playing all around, with lots of joy in the audience. When the opera ended the amiable older gentleman next to me, who had earlier noticed my bag from Moe's and with whom I had been summoning up remembrances of bookstores past, cheerfully said of his elegant wife, "Well, now I have to go home and beat her" and we all three laughed.
There are three more opportunities to catch the performance, and when else are you going to get to see Rita: Friday 14 February at First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, Saturday 15 February at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, and Sunday 16 February at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. More information and tickets here.