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Local Diva Makes Her Local Debut with Pocket Opera

June 8, 2014

Pocket Opera

Rabihah Davis Dunn as LeilaDonald Pippin's Pocket Opera found a real jewel (saying "pearl" would be too obvious) in Rabihah Davis Dunn, who made her Northern California debut as Leila in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers on Sunday.

With degrees from USC, University of Michigan, and the Royal Academy of Music, Dunn has been performing for almost two decades. Although both she and her husband, baritone Juan Dunn, are from the Bay Area (she attended the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts), it took Pippin to right her inexplicable omission from local stages.

The Legion of Honor is a small venue — 300 seats, excellent acoustics — so the only remaining question is how the soprano would fare in an opera house 10 times the size of it. Otherwise, she shone grandly in Bizet's orphan child (compared with Carmen).

Dunn's voice is a glowing instrument, her musicality and involvement in the role was splendid, and her diction — in Pippin's new English-language version — unsurpassable. The high notes required for the role were all rock solid, lyric passages moving. I hope the talent scouts at the performance were local so we may soon hear her here again after this mysteriously delayed debut.

As Pippin himself admitted in his introduction to the opera, it has all the improbabilities for which many works in the genre are infamous. Bizet's fourth operatic composition and first to be publicly performed, The Pearl Fishers is a theatrically meek, convoluted, musically pretty, old-fashioned opera — and so it seemed even back at its premiere, in 1863.

The cast of <em>The Pearl Fishers</em>And yet, mostly because of its musical/vocal values, it persists; both the San Francisco and San Jose opera companies produced it in recent years. At any age, Bizet knew how to write a great tune, even if that alone does not a true music drama make. The Pearl Fishers has the famed tenor-baritone duet "Au fond du temple saint" (In the depths of the temple), the music known to all from TV commercials, even if few have a clue about its source, and the gorgeous but treacherous tenor aria, "Je crois entendre encore" (I believe I hear it again).

The rest of the music, even a big soprano aria, "Comme autrefois" (As once before ... [I am alone in the night]), is mostly a melange of variations and restatements. The story of tribal chief Zurga, the pearl fisher Nadir, and their fatal contest for the forbidden love of the priestess Leila, is unfit for soap opera or even episodes of Survivor. Still, it's an opera both silly and lovely.

Pippin's English version is the usual bravura mix of a singing (rather than literal) translation and clear, interesting story-telling. The company founder/music director/pianist has always found a way to capture the essence of the text, instead of following the often dodgy originals word by word. Here's how that works at the beginning of the opera:

The original:

    Sur la grève en feu
    Où dort le flot bleu,
    Nous dressons nos tentes!
    Dansez jusqu'au sour,
    Filles à l'œil noir,
    Aux tresses flottantes!

The standard English translation:

    On the burning sand
    where the blue sea sleeps
    we set up our tents;
    dance until evening,
    black-eyed lasses
    of the flowing tresses.

Pippin's version:

    On the burning sand
    Of a sheltered strand
    We are all believers
    That our dances keep
    Demons of the deep
    Far away from divers.

The Legion's Florence Gould Even with English supertitles, opera in English must pay special attention to diction, and it is in the proud Pippin/Pocket Opera tradition that both spoken text and lyrics are easy to understand. In this, the rest of the cast equalled Dunn's clarity. Vocal performances were impressive, with some minor misgivings.

Robert Vann, as Nadir, protected his appealing tenor by taking high notes in falsetto. Daniel Yoder's Zurga was the second most powerful voice in the cast, accurate but at times giving the impression of not hitting notes head on. 

The most imposing voice belonged to bass-baritone Ben Brady, a towering presence as the high priest Nourabad. With more coloring in phrasing, which occasionally appears almost stolid, Brady should have a good career in the rich literature for his type of voice.

With Pippin at the piano, the Pocket Philharmonic was in fine fettle — all nine of them, playing the symphonic score as if there were multiples of them.

For oldtimers with clear memory of the long-gone days of Pocket performers singing with the score in front of them, these fully staged operas are amazing. How can you direct (Nicolas Aliaga), choreograph and dance (Christine Germaine, with Slater Penney), and lavishly costume (Maria Graham) with a miniscule budget and on a tiny stage — no way to know, but sincere kudos anyway.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].