|l-r: Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez (Euphemia), Scott Levin (Andronico), Ben Lowe (Don Procopio), Armando Contreras (Ernesto), Rachel Policar (Bettina), Jon Lee Keenan (Odoardo).|
Bizet's "Don Procopio", Pacific Opera Project, Heritage Square Museum,
DAVID J BROWN
The first, and last, thing to be said about Pacific Opera Project's production of Bizet's early opera buffa, Don Procopio, is that this propulsively energized, inventively staged and lit, virtuosically sung, and endearingly silly take on what was only Bizet's second completed opera (out of no fewer than 15, some of them never completed) was the perfect antidote to the long months of Covid-induced live-performance drought—at least for the capacity audience that whistled and cheered its enthusiasm from the greensward centered amongst the Heritage Square Museum's collection of historic buildings.
Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was something of a youthful prodigy, and won the prestigious Grande Prix de Rome at the age of only 18. Once established in Rome for his three-year stay, he wrote home that, to fulfil the prize's composition requirement, he had settled on an "Italian farce in the manner of [Donizetti's] Don Pasquale" using a libretto by one Carlo Cambiaggio that he found in one of Rome's used bookstores. Bizet proceeded to work on and complete the score of Don Procopio over the winter of 1858-59, but it was never performed in his lifetime, and only published in 1905 in a version edited by Charles Malherbe.
|Bizet at the time of his |
Prix de Rome win.
The Cambiaggio libretto had an already well-worn and rather ageist plot, in which one old miser, Don Andronico, schemes to marry his niece Bettina to another, Don Procopio, on the grounds that a young spouse would be a spendthrift. But Bettina is already in love, unsurprisingly, with young Odoardo and, aided by aunt Eusebia and brother Ernesto, contrives to thwart the oldies' plans.
|Euphemia and Andronico argue.|
There was not a weak link amongst the cast, most of whom were stalwarts of previous POP productions. Surely much sprightlier than the part was originally conceived, the Andronico of Scott Levin (bass-baritone) and Euphemia (Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez, mezzo-soprano) nimbly negotiated the shoals of syllables—against repeated staccato interruptions from the chorus—in Bizet's rapid-fire setting of their opening dispute about the marital fate of Bettina. She, in the person of Rachel Policar (soprano) resplendent in ostrich feather head-piece, immediately demonstrated herself to be, in her taxing opening aria railing against her fate, as equal to the threat as she was vocally secure.
|Bettina bewails her fate.|
The entry on Bizet in the 1954 fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary notes that in his arrangement of the score for its publication, Malherbe "completely falsified it by adding [...] recitatives and an entr'acte in most inappropriate imitation of Bizet's later style[...]." 67 years on, later scholarship may or may not refute that academic finger-wagging but fake Bizet or not, POP included the entr'acte as a ballet pas de deux for two ostriches that culminated in a very sprightly-looking chick emerging from an egg discreetly laid, rear center-stage.
|The ostrich pas de deux: William Grundler and Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt.|
|The chorus as chorus: l-r Matt Welch, Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt, Rachel Freed, William Grundler.|
|Edoardo and Bettina declare their|
love, with onlookers.
Some of the solo singing was a little less than secure, perhaps with the need to keep the buffa ball constantly bouncing and bobbing being traded for exactness of pitch—and perhaps also due to the very small instrumental forces not being audible enough in the open-air setting to give the support that Bizet's normal theater orchestra would have provided. A bigger band would have added depth and richness throughout, which is not to say that Music Director Charlie Kim and his intrepid group of just four strings and two woodwind gave their part all the verve and commitment that could be desired.
In brief remarks before the performance began, Josh Shaw noted that the whole production had come together, from initial idea to realization on the temporary stage erected against the façade of the Museum's 1897 Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church, in just six weeks, and paid tribute to all who had made it possible. I for one hope that this quite astonishing achievement—Don Procopio's West Coast premiere, a mere 162 years late, be it noted—might eventually be augmented by a fuller-scaled indoor production, perhaps in a double-bill with Doctor Miracle...?
Pacific Opera Project, Heritage Square Museum, 8 p.m., Sunday, June 6, 2021.
Images: Production photos: Martha Benedict; Bizet: Courtesy KDFC. Cawston Ostrich Farm poster: eBay.