Saturday, June 30, 2018

No Fake News in POP’s Rossini Newspaper!

Front row: Scott Ziemann (Monsu Traversen), Jessie Shulman (Madama la Rose),
and Kyle Patterson (Alberto).


Rossini’s “La gazzetta”, Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club

Gioachino Rossini was still only 24 when he composed La gazzetta in 1816, though such had his productivity already been that it was no apprentice effort. It was the 18th of his total of 39 operas (or 37, or 38, or 40, depending on how you count the couple that were revisions of earlier works, and another that remained unfinished), and directly followed The Barber of Seville – posterity’s choice for greatest hit in his canon. La gazzetta in fact fell near the end of the first major phase of Rossini’s career, which mostly comprised comic operas; of the operas that followed it, only four were comedies. 

The youthful Rossini: undated
portrait by an unknown artist.
It was apparently well received by audiences at its first run in Naples in autumn 1816, but there were negative critical comments on both the music (which included some borrowings from earlier Rossini operas) and the libretto. After one revival in Palermo in 1828, La gazzetta was forgotten for the best part of a century and a half. Its immediate successor in Rossini’s output, La Cenerentola (which in its turn borrowed La gazzetta’s overture, thus accounting for the music’s familiarity when the present performance started), proved to be a durable hit, so La gazzetta’s failure then inevitably raises the question now of how good a piece is it… or not? 

Well, since the first modern performances – for broadcast in Italy in 1960 and staged in Vienna in 1976 – the opera’s viability seems to have been confirmed, if the gathering pace of revival is anything to go by. This century has seen productions in England, Italy, Spain, and Germany, some of them preserved on CD and DVD, and in 2013 it reached the US, courtesy of New England Conservatory in Boston. La gazzetta’s West Coast debut by Pacific Opera Project is the latest stage in the process, and POP’s sharply sung, brilliantly colored, and highly athletic production, premiered on July 28 and with its run through July 7 now sold out, carried a fervent conviction of its quality. 

Brooke DeRosa.

There were a couple of compromises. Economics required Music Director Brooke DeRosa to construct a new score, reducing the orchestra from Rossini’s original double woodwind (one bassoon), horns and trumpets, trombone and strings, to an ensemble of single winds (no oboe), horn, three violins, viola, ‘cello, bass and continuo. Also the auditorium of the Highland Park Ebell Club, between Chinatown and Pasadena, was not an ideal venue, having a very hard, dry acoustic (not to mention a sphincter-squeezing paucity of public restrooms!). 

On the other hand, the room’s square layout enabled the performing area to extend along most of two adjacent sides, thus fronting the audience with a broad, angled expanse of hotel lobby set design that seemed to owe something to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (not to mention the hotel staff costumes).

Ms. DeRosa and her 10 intrepid musicians delivered their crisply accented playing from a podium behind the action on the right-hand panel of the set (apart from the stalwart harpsichord continuo of Zach Neufeld, which emanated from the outer darkness somewhere far to the right). Above the cusp of the two stage areas, a supertitle board kept the audience abreast of Production Director Josh Shaw’s updated version of the words (yep, the “fake news” joke WAS in there, and it got a hearty laugh!). 

E. Scott Levin as Don Pomponio.

POP’s stellar cast gave their all, individually and collectively. Front and center was bass-baritone E. Scott Levin, a perfect embodiment of smug, gold-waistcoated rotundity as Signor Don Pomponio, the “Neapolitan businessman” whose ad for his marriageable daughter Lisetta in the eponymous newspaper sets in motion the freewheeling chaos of misunderstandings and mismatchings that serves as plot.

Lisetta was sung by soprano Rachel Policar, in a performance that matched his outbursts of posturing self-importance with alternating flurries of wheedling and petulance (though her upper register was sometimes rendered a little shrill by the unforgiving acoustic). Armando Contreras sang the hotel owner Filippo, Lisetta’s true but father-forbidden love, with honeyed baritone tones and a smooth line in confiding asides to the audience. 

Rachel Policar (Lisetta), E. Scott Levin (Don Pomponio), Kyle Patterson (Alberto),
Armando Contreras (Filippo), Molly Clementz (Doralice).

Worthy support came from Kyle Patterson, whose light, bright opening tenor aria as the love-lorn hotel guest Alberto gave clear indication of the vocal excellence to follow, as well as Molly Clements (Doralice), Jessie Shulman (Madama La Rose), Scott Ziemann (Monsu Traversen), and Phil Meyer (Anselmo).

Alongside their rhythmically precise and pitch-secure vocal performances, they all in various combinations adroitly handled the choreographed ensemble numbers with a plethora of smartly unison bobbing, shoulders-hunching, hearts-clasping, and appropriate facial gestures. All this was topped off by the lighting design, which at times took on an almost demented life of its own, with strobe-like ons-and-offs of groups of light sources from every which way on the stage, in strict time to the beats in Rossini’s measures. 

The title-page from Rossini's manuscript full score.

The epitome of these ensembles, at least in Act One, is an elaborate quintet for Lisetta, Doralice, Alberto, Filippo, and Don Pomponio. Though present in the original printed libretto, it was absent from Rossini’s manuscript score and all subsequent musical sources when the critical edition of La gazzetta came to be published by the Rossini Foundation in Pesaro in 2002. For the POP production, Brooke DeRosa painstakingly reconstructed the quintet out of fragments from various sources that some deft musicological detective work had demonstrated belonged together. 

In terms of sheer vividness and energy, Act Two managed even to top the best of Act One, with Ms. Policar delivering one number while being swung around and lofted shoulder-high by the small, stalwart group of chorister/dancers who variously did duty as hotel staff and guests, all with a daring and energy that would have done credit to Beyoncé and her team. There was more precarious athleticism when Filippo leapt onto and off of his hotel reception desk while brandishing a pistol, all the while delivering a recitative about blowing his brains out, while later on some vigorous and inexpert pretend-swordplay between Alberto and Filippo added to the fun. 

E. Scott Levin (Don Pomponio), Kyle Patterson (Alberto), Armando Contreras (Filippo).

Despite the updating of the mise en scène and the translation, there was (blessedly) no attempt to shoe-horn the action into the digital age with cellphones or tablets replacing good old newsprint, and when the Act Two finale concluded with real-life newspapers (or to be exact, copies of the program that had been printed as tabloid sheets) being whirled around by the entire cast as props, honor had been thoroughly done both to the spirit and letter of Rossini, and the need to create as vibrant and fun-filled an evening’s entertainment as could be wished for.

If you've missed this production of La gazzetta so far and now can't get tickets, there's some compensation in that the final performance on Saturday July 7 will be broadcast live on Pacific Opera Project's Facebook home page. Bravo POP! 


Pacific Opera Project, Highland Park Ebell Club, 8 p.m., Thursday, June 28 2018.
Images: Production photos: Josh Shaw; Rossini: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; La Gazzetta title page: Courtesy IMSLP; Brooke DeRosa: Courtesy IMDB.

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