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Theatre Comique Shines Despite Not-So-Golden Oldies

November 14, 2017

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Corey Jamason, prominently associated with Baroque music, took a walk down a different memory lane on Sunday. He led a San Francisco Conservatory of Music concert of “old music,” but as different from 17th-century classical music as is possible. 

The new musical theater ensemble Theatre Comique, headed by Jamason and  Eric Davis, helped celebrate the Conservatory’s centennial with a concert of operetta and musicals from a hundred years ago. On the program: excerpts from Victor Herbert’s The Enchantress, Mlle. Modiste, Naughty Marietta, and Jerome Kern’s The Laughing Husband, Leave It to Jane, and Very Good Eddie.

Scratching your head? So did your reporter, even though I hail from the land of Lehár and Kálmán, champions of European operetta, and I am a great fan of Broadway musicals, including the “forgotten ones,” usually offered by 42nd Street Moon. But Theatre Comique — probably named after the Broadway theater that opened in 1862 — came up with six titles only one of which is vaguely familiar: Naughty Marietta.

So, it was novelties and challenges marked by extraordinary performances of ordinary music. Young soloists, a Conservatory ensemble, and the mixed student-faculty SFCM Orchestra, conducted by Jamason, all did their best, even if most of the music revealed the reason for the neglect of these works. For Herbert, that was no surprise, but from Kern — who wrote more than 700 songs used in over 100 musicals and films — these early “light operas” were disappointingly monotonous and saccharine-laden.

It was an amazing accomplishment that all soloists performed without the score, singing long, complex lyrics from the heart (in more ways than one), meaning that they invested in learning something they are unlikely to perform ever again. That’s dedication!

Soprano Erica Schuller, mezzo Katherine Growdon, and tenor Brian Thorsett carried most of the concert, but soloists also included sopranos Raeeka Shehabi-Yagmai and Katharina Nunn, tenors James Hogan and Ricky Garcia,  and others.

Schuller and Growdon are experienced and successful singers with beautifully modulated, well-projecting voices, careful diction, and rock-solid stage presence. Schuller impressed at beginning of the concert, with “If I Were on the Stage” and “The Nightingale and the Star” from Mlle. Modiste, and she remained brilliant to the very end of the concert.

Growdon shone in every solo and duet, especially in “’Neath the Southern Moon” from Naughty Marietta (a curious assignment, as it’s a song associated with Nelson Eddy) and in a duet with Garcia in “Bought and Paid For” from The Laughing Husband (“Love used to be a perfect dream of romance / Now ’tis a business deal”).

Thorsett held the stage consistently, impressing with a warm, appealing voice, and a most natural and un-tenorlike mien. His presence was self-effacing, rather than taking over front-and-center. His versatility shows in the lineup of future engagements, from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Magnificat, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, the Berlioz Requiem, and Bruckner’s Mass in F Minor.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Corey Jamason's name. Also Theatre Comique is not a Conservatory ensemble. It is independent.

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