Winter of Content Part III – the Santa Barbara Italian Passions Festival

Note: This is the third and final part of a review of the 2007-08 Midwinter Opera Scene in Southern California.  Previous reviews of operas performed by the Los Angeles Opera, San Diego Opera and Opera Pacific (Orange County) may be found in Tom’s Winter of Content: Midwinter Opera in Sunny Southern California 2007-08 (March 2008 Archives) and Winter of Content: Southern California Opera 2007-08, Part II (April 2008 Archives).

Italian Passion sears Santa Barbara’s opera scene:

Opera Santa Barbara very appropriately dubbed their Spring opera season the Italian Passions Festival feauturing Donizetti’s comic-opera “The Elixir of Love (L’Elisir d’Amore)”, and the famed double-bill of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” – with both “Cav” and “Pag” loaded with truly passionate Italian music with gutsy, in-your-face stories.

[Below right: Conductor and Opera Santa Barbara Musical Director Valery Ryvkin; edited image, based on David Bazemore photograph, courtesy of Opera Santa Barbara.]

OSB is now in its fourteenth year and is about to move from the intimately (600 seat) small-but-elegant Lobero Theatre to a new venue, the much bigger, newly-restored, but wonderfully historic, old Granada Theatre which re-opened March 6th of this year. It would be hard to conjure up a more smashingly attractive smaller city setting for a smashingly attractive small opera company than OSB at home in the lovely city of Santa Barbara.

Cav and Pag, both by young Italian composers in the verismo style, meaning tell-it-like-it-is, the rawest of emotions hanging out. OSB’s productions of both “Cav” and “Pag” did not spare any gut punches.  Both were brilliantly conducted by OSB’s long-time Artistic Director and conductor (since 1995), Valery Ryvkin.

Hailing from St Petersburg, Russia, but now living in L.A., Ryvkin conducted San Diego Opera’s fabulous 2007 production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” as well as San Diego Opera’s 2008 production of Verdi’s “Aida”. He has held the conductor’s baton in 23 of OSB’s 27 operas presented so far. He had served on the musical staff of the San Francisco Opera in the early 1990s, and is concurrently director of the Greensboro (North Carolina) Opera.  Ryvkin is scheduled to conduct the world stage premiere of  a new opera by Broadway musical (and Disney animated film) titan Stephen Schwartz (commissioned by OSB) at the Granada Theater on October 31, 2009.

“The Elixir of Love” is a comedy full of sunshine, with wonderfully lilting, melodic music about poor young Nemorino (Robert McPherson) who wants the beautiful gal Adina (Susan Holsonbake), but the strutting Sergeant Belcore (Nicolai Janitzky) of the militia sweeps her off her feet. Enter everyone’s favorite quack doctor, Dr Dulcamara (Michael Wanko), who arrives on the scene with his wagon of wondrous elixirs that can cure anything from halitosis to hemorrhoids, from hiccups to hives.

[Below left: Nemorino (Robert McPherson), left, is persuaded by Doctor Dulcamara (Michael Wanko) that his table wine is a magic elixir.  Edited image, based on a David Bazemore photograph, courtesy of Opera Santa Barbara.]

Yes, Nemorino spends his last centimo on Dr Duclamara’s perfect elixir, instantly swigging it — and instantly swooning (it’s actually 19th century “Two Buck Chuck!”). But he needs more of this magic elixir for maximum effect, but has no money.

Sgt Belcore comes to the rescue and offers 20 scudi (bucks) if Nemorino will enlist in his regiment – thereby getting rid of him as his rival – who will be shipped out ASAP. It’s a done deal, but in the end our heroine buys back Nemorino’s enlistment papers and the two lovers compassionately stride off, singing of the genius of the Elixir of Love!!!

Our superb Nemorino, Robert McPherson, acted the role as if he lived it, with passionate Italian singing to match. William and I saw him in San Francisco’s sublime 2007 production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” last season in which he was (envelope please . . . ) the Italian Singer. How appropriate for him to come to Santa Barbara to sing in Italian Passions!

[Below left: Nedda (Barbara Divis) on the ground as Tonio (Malcolm MacKenzie), left, and Beppe (Matthew Pena), hold back Canio (Allan Glassman); edited image, based on David Bazemore photograph, courtesy of Opera Santa Barbara.]  

Every opera-lover knows the stories of both Cav and Pag, visceral stories both. OSB did both with tear-jerking emotion, telling it like it is. These are not fun/happy/sunny pieces – filled with sensational music, they tell gritty, extremely unpleasant emotional sagas – but that’s what opera verismo is all about. 

Allan Glassman brilliantly tackled the lead roles in both operas (Turiddu in “Cav” and Canio in “Pag”) with sheer, totally realistic verismo bringing with him much experience at the Met (creating a role in Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy”)and performing the role of Samson in  Opera Pacific’s production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”. Indeed, all of the casts were well chosen and perfectly suited for their roles. Layna Chianakas was Cav’s Santuzza, Barbara Divis, Pag’s Nedda and Daniel Narducci, her paramour, Silvio. Like Glassman, Malcolm MacKenzie sang in both operas (Alfio in “Cav” and Tonio in “Pag”.)

The sets and costumes were right on target – as were the gymnasts doing somersaults across the stage and adorable tiny-tot kids very much in the center of the action of “Pag”.

By all means focus a Santa Barbara holiday around OSB’s productions – there is superb dining and much to see with the now-World-class Santa Barbara wine country less than an hour away.

See (in this website’s February 2008 archives) Tom’s Tips for attending opera in Santa Barbara!