Philharmonia Baroque Seals a Delightful "Contract"

Steven Winn on April 20, 2015
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.
The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, that peerless, Bay Area, period-instrument ensemble, has been pushing the historical envelope into new repertoire in recent years. For its season-ending April concerts, music director Nicholas McGegan joined forces with the San Francisco Opera Center’s Adler Fellowship program to produce an utterly delightful performance of Rossini’s effervescent early farce La cambiale di matrimonio (1810) at the SFJAZZ Center.  

Shown off in an expertly minimal staging (by director Ted Huffman), six uniformly fine singers and the orchestra brought a buoyant and beautifully flowing “Marriage Contract” to vital musical life. Mozart supplied the curtain raiser with a set of varied vocal numbers preceded by a spry overture and intercut with rustic contradances. After a palate-cleansing intermission, the table was set for a farcical full meal of Rossini.   

Brimming with the frisky high spirits of its precocious, 18-year-old composer, La cambiale fills a story about a greedy father who wants to auction off his marriageable daughter to the highest bidder with one ingratiating aria and ensemble after another. Broadly drawn characters and up-front humor are set off by just enough bel canto finery to make this an ideal showcase for gifted but still developing young singers.

The Adler Fellows took on the challenge with palpable pleasure and relish. Jacqueline Piccolino used her calmly self-assertive presence and piping soprano voice to capture Fanni, the girl her obtuse father Tobia (the fulminating bass Matthew Stump) views as a commodity. His mark is a Canadian, sung by baritone Efraín Solis, who found his footing after a tentative start and delivered a ripe turn as Slook, the distressed but ultimately big-hearted outlander in search of a bride.

Brian Thorsett, whose warm tenor voice blended handsomely with Piccolino’s fluting tone, played Edoardo, Fanni’s secret lover. Mezzo-soprano Nian Wang — all panicky bustle as Clarina, one of Tobia’s servants — paused in her duties to deliver the evening’s most tender aria, about finding the right man. No wonder she and her fellow servant Norton (a somewhat stiff but full-voiced bass Anthony Reed) sealed it with a sudden kiss.

With the flexible SFJAZZ space configured to place the orchestra in a shallow pit beneath a wide shallow stage, a sense of intimate coherence prevailed. All the performers were plainly visible to both audience and each other. McGegan knitted things together in a lucid, briskly supple manner.

After an eventful overture, rich with singing horn solos, yelping violas, and jolly woodwind passages, the two servants set the wind-up toy plot in motion. Stump was a pleasure from his first entrance, his schemes spilling out of him in both sung and spoken recitative of BB gun accuracy and precision. It made the deft theatrical point that Tobia adds up everything, from lire to notes to the precise distance from America to Italy. He almost couldn’t count his imagined winnings fast enough. Fortepiano player Noah Lindquist matched him every step of the way with his glittering continuo.

Solis didn’t quite deliver on the Canadian’s bumptious entrance, but both his voice and performance warmed up into a portrait of a man befuddled by another culture but determined to do right. Thorsett, too, seemed slightly uncomfortable, holding his body at a slightly stooped angle. His musical line and phrasing, however, came more naturally. The Rossini may have been at its best in the ensembles, unified yet transparent, with every voice and character coming through.   

The Rossini may have been at its best in the ensembles, unified yet transparent, with every voice and character coming through. Even in a bungled duel at the end, with everyone ducking for cover from Tobia’s wild swing of a pistol, the terms of this “Contract” were amply fulfilled. 

In a much shorter first portion of the program, the singers and orchestra covered some ground.  Soprano Julie Adams gave a gracefully liquid account of “Nehmt meinen Dank.”  Baritone Edward Nelson was funny and musically fluent in three languages, in a bright selection from La finta giardiniera.  Only Reed’s monochrome reading of “Per questa bella mano,” with Kristin Zoernig’s intonation-plagued accompaniment on double bass, didn’t quite measure up. A lively quartet brought the Mozart sampler to a close.