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Thrilling Flights in Rare Rossini

January 19, 2014

West Edge Opera

Emma McNairyThe word must have gotten out about soprano Emma McNairy. How else to explain the warm Sunday afternoon packed house at Berkeley’s Northbrae Community Church for West Edge Opera’s concert performance of Rossini’s early opera, Elizabeth, Queen of England, (or, more rightly put, for an opera performed in Italian with well-projected English translations, Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra).

Elizabeth may have considered herself special, but Rossini did not treat her music as such. The overture for the 1815 opera, which Rossini wrote when he was 23, was taken from the composer’s 1813, opera, Aureliano in Palmira, then recycled note-for-note four months later for The Barber of Seville. Ditto some of Queen Elisabetta’s other music, which was either lifted from earlier operas or recycled later on. You’ll definitely hear the first version of Rosina’s “Una voce poca fa” in Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra.

What Rossini did not recycle, except in spirit, was the absurdity of Giovanni Schmidt’s libretto. There are enough ridiculous asides in this opera, where people repeatedly express different and opposing parts of their personalities and motivations from the two different sides of their mouths, to make for a good stand-up routine. The trouble is, it’s all meant to be serious. We’ve got a war hero Leicester (tenor Nadav Hart), who excels in military maneuvers, yet has no clue that his best friend and confessor, Norfolk (tenor Michael Belle), wants nothing more than to humiliate him and win the Queen’s (McNairy) favor at his expense. On top of that, there's Leicester’s secret wife Matilde (mezzo-soprano Alix Jerinic), who is not only Elisabeth’s political enemy but also her rival in love (this is opera, after all), yet blows her cover the second she appears on stage. And let’s not forget her even more clueless brother Enrico (mezzo-soprano Elayne Juten); the know-everything-but-nothing-can-do page Guglielmo (tenor Alan Briones); and the fickle chorus. Put it all together, and you can be certain that this is an opera best offered in concert version or on CD rather than fully staged.

Michael Belle as NorfolkWhich leads us to McNairy. Two years after she scored big as Zerbinetta in West Edge Opera’s fully staged production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos — a production I was lamentably unable to attend — her voice seems to have grown considerably in beauty. The warmth and richness that were reportedly absent at age 23 have now come to the fore, with impressive weight in the middle, and highs perhaps even more thrilling. Note as well that her coloratura is impeccably voiced and fluid, and her intonation flawless.

The first time McNairy headed to the stratosphere, in an outburst of rage, the audience laughed, as much for sheer shock of hearing something so extraordinary amidst the ordinary singing that had preceded it as for the fact that, in this passage, Rossini at last moved beyond the merely melodically engaging to music that was emotionally and dramatically expressive. When, at the end of the first of the opera’s two acts, McNairy held what sounded like a high E-flat for a good six seconds, and rode over the entire ensemble, the audience went wild.

It’s not that McNairy was the only singer worth writing about. Belle, who has sung in the San Francisco Opera Chorus since 2009, may only have been spot on 98% of the time, but his singing was marked by rewarding beauty of tone, strength, and a sure and strong top. Jerinic, too, may not have always emitted a flawless line, but her range and strength on top were admirable. The extremely handsome Hart sang very well lower in his range, with equally handsome baritonal timbre, but almost consistently weakened and pinched higher up. Not good for a war hero. The voices of young Juten and Briones are still developing, but showed potential.

Music director Jonathan Khuner’s pianism, pacing, and English supertitle authoring were exemplary, and the other two members of the piano trio “orchestra,” violinist Sara Usher and cellist Judiyaba, performed quite well. “Supertitle operator” — they were actually projections on a makeshift screen to stage right — Daniel Alley deserves kudos for going with the flow and jumping ahead but once in an opera whose absurdities would have tempted many a projectionist to forget what they were doing and instead crack up.

There was one major misstep of the afternoon — not reigning in Belle’s decision to lay absurdities bare by camping it up. As my companion pointedly remarked after the performance, buffo facial expressions and a hilariously croaked reaction to a death sentence have no place in a music drama that is not intentionally comic. No one in the audience needed help sensing the libretto’s idiocies, but Belle’s fellow artists must have been forced to work extra hard to maintain focus as he drew attention away from them.

West Edge Opera seems to be cursed with a succession of dry halls devoid of the resonance so crucial to operatic voices. As the company searches for a new home for its staged productions, expected in summer 2014, lets hope it secures an affordable venue whose acoustics fully honor its artistic intentions. Meanwhile, a major thumbs up, not only to McNairy, but also to a laudably determined company whose motto for its three- concert performance series — “Opera Medium-Rare (but well done!) — absolutely spoke the truth on January 19.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.