Monday, April 26, 2010

Opera San Jose

Puccini's "La Rondine"

April 24, 2010

It was a night of couples at Opera San Jose, as the company presented Puccini's elegant, understated gem. And things began with Doretta's Song, which is always an interesting phenomenon, being heard so much more often in recitals and recordings than in its dramatic context. The first surprise comes when it's presented by the tenor, playing the poet Prunier, as a fanciful story that foreshadows some of the "real" action in the opera. Prunier leaves those trademark sustenatos to the orchestra, then gives way as our prima donna, Magda, decides to finish his story in a romantic vein (Doretta rejecting the rich man for the poor student, yeah, sure).

It's not fair at all to foist these notes on a soprano five minutes into the evening, and a Magda could be forgiven for blaring her way into them, but Rebecca Davis went for the route that made her February Contessa Almaviva so touching, beginning with a tonal seed and growing it into a lovely, blossoming tree through the line. Davis's singing is an evening-length delight, at both extremes: the gem-like quiet of her Act 1 wishes for an evening out (working up her courage to escape her benefactor) or the unexpected power of her passages with her dream-lover, Ruggero.

It's a good thing she's got that power, too, because Ruggero comes in the form of Christopher Bengochea, an OSJ alum whose always sublime lyric tenor has suddenly taken on a spinto muscularity. The power of both singers comes through especially in the final quartet of the second act in Cafe Momus, er, Bullier's, "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso," and the final anguished duet of the third-act breakup, "Ma come puoi lasciarmi." Bengochea's new sound fits well with Ruggero's scarily monogamist passions.

Our second couple is Marcello and Mus...,er, Prunier and Lisette, Magda's housemaid, who pretend to hate each other while carrying on a torrid affair - but, in fact, really do quite often hate each other. It's a great bit of fun that tenor Michael Dailey and soprano Khori Dastoor make the most of, particularly in a third-act moment of slapfight-as-foreplay (this current group of OSJ residents are the best slappers I've ever seen). With her physical gags and facial expressions, Dastoor continues to show a great facility with the underrated skills of opera comedy, and both singers offer vocal pleasures, as well: Dastoor with Lisette's sudden, powerful protestations, and Dailey with his remarkably beautiful tones above the staff (particularly in a touching flirtation in Act I).

The surest sign that stage director Jose Maria Condemi is in town is the barely controlled chaos of Cafe Momus, er, Bullier's. The atmosphere is almost cartoonish, helped not a little by the linebacker-size men in the chorus (where do we get these guys?). The act offers some lively divertimentos - for example, the dance quartet of Taggart Frost, Mary Ines, Maurice Monge and Svenja Reinschmidt - but retains the feeling that all of this is being produced spontaneously, in the style of an actual cafe. The setting of the opera's final moments - Ruggero ruined, lying on the ground as Magda exits to the call of church bells, is as beautifully arranged as a Rembrandt. (Condemi's work has hardly gone unnoticed; he was just appointed artistic director at Opera Santa Barbara.)

Larry Hancock continues to be a divine materials-at-hand set designer, outfitting Bullier's with striking blue-screen windows, and concocting an Act 3 seaside terrace with a bracing feeling of expansiveness. (The sky-screen, however, needs a little ironing toward audience-left.) The supertitle prize, meanwhile, goes to the exclamation of one of Magda's working-girl colleagues: "Money is so expensive!"

David Rohrbaugh and orchestra brought the most from Puccini's lovely score, particularly the bittersweet strings accompanying Magda's final, critical decision. The musicians showed their collective cool when the audience gave Bengochea an unexpected applause in Act 3, maintaining a tremolo until the clapping ceased, then smoothly kicking back in to Magda's response.

I can't recount how many times I have included the name Sara Beukers in my reviews, but this will apparently be the last. The wig and makeup designer has worked on 67 OSJ productions. The times I didn't mention her name were probably nights like this one, when her creations blended smoothly and effectively with the feel and action of the opera (although at this point I should re-mention her high-larious creations for the ugly sisters in "La Cenerentola"). I offer my thanks to Sara for so many years of outstanding work.

Through May 9, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$91, 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic whose novel, "Operaville," will be released this fall.

Photo by Chris Ayers.