Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Opera and Musical Theatre Program joined forces with the Historical Performance Department to present an evening of two sharply contrasting short operas. The first of these was the unabashedly farcical “Mavra,” composed by Igor Stravinsky in one of his strongest Russian moods. This was followed by Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which sharply contrasted with “Mavra” in just about every way. Both performances were fully staged, “Mavra” by Heather Mathews and Dido and Aeneas by Jose Maria Condemi.
Stravinsky originally scored “Mavra” for a full orchestra, which is how it was first performed at the Paris Opera in 1922. However, it has been arranged at least twice for smaller ensembles. Due to limitations of space, last night’s performance used the bare-bones arrangement by Winfried Radeke for clarinet (Nicolina Logan), bassoon (Jamael Smith), horn (Kyle Pompei), piano (Daryl Cooper), and bass (Erika Britto), conducted by Curt Pajer. Dido was performed by a string ensemble of Historical Performance students (including Adrian Murillo on Baroque guitar); and Corey Jamason conducted from the harpsichord.
Stravinsky’s librettist was Boris Kochno, who based his text on Alexander Pushkin’s verse story “The Little House at Kolomna.” This had been made into a silent film in Russia in 1913 by Pyotr Chardynin, which may well have been the inspiration for Stravinsky’s project. It is set in the house of a widowed mother (Bethany Goldson) whose cook has just died. Her daughter, Parasha (Melissa Sondhi), is less interested in the household than the attentions of the young soldier Vasilli (Ricardo Garcia). She also has to contend with a busybody neighbor (Camille Sherman), who lives in the house next door. In order to spend more time with Vasilli, Parasha disguises him as a woman and presents him as the new cook she found, who introduces “herself” as “Mavra.” The scheme gets off to a good start but unravels after the neighbor catches Mavra taking a shave, after which Vasilli is forced to make a quick escape through the window.
Rather than go for the early nineteenth century of Pushkin’s Russia, Mathews transplanted the setting to midcentury America. Her design suggested a house in a neighborhood that looked a bit like what Levittown would have looked like, had it been designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. This was a bit anachronistic, since Levittown families tended not to have cooks. (They were an early generation to resort to putting frozen food in the oven. The microwave would come decades later.) Nevertheless, this inconsistency with the story was a minor detail. More important was that Mathews was as effective in establishing the nature of each of the four characters as the vocalists were in negotiating Stravinsky’s pleasantly tonal but still highly eccentric score. The result was thoroughly engaging, even if the English titles had to be read from the side of the stage, rather than from above.
Dido, on the other hand, was a bit more problematic. The opera was sung in English, but no titles were provided. This posed a major difficulty deriving from both the archaic phrasings of Nahum Tate’s libretto and Purcell’s often convoluted settings of those phrasings. This may have made for a major achievement in the history of English music, but that achievement clearly rested on the familiarity of the story, regardless of how Tate chose to deliver it in words that were then set to music by Purcell. In contrast to “Mavra,” Dido involved a large cast involving not only the title characters but also Dido’s servants, a sorceress and the dark spirits she summons, and a crew of sailors. Many of these roles were taken by a chorus members, but there was also a generous amount of solo voice work.
In addition, while it is relatively short (about an hour), Dido is actually in three acts with a prologue; and the second act has two scenes. Ultimately, there are five different venues in which the acts unfold. Unfortunately, Condemi was far less convincing in establishing a sense of place than Mathews had been in “Mavra.” His character development was similarly weak; and there is a good chance that anyone not already familiar with the opera would have been more than a little mystified by much of the action, particularly as it pertains to the circumstances behind Aeneas’ departure. Coherence thus depended primarily on the diction of the singers, which was, for the most part, effective and, in the case of the title characters (Molly Boggess and Andrew Ross) much more than adequately convincing. The instrumental ensemble tended to be a bit ragged, but cellist Eugenio Solinas provided an impressively shaped repeated bass line to reinforce the tragic impact of Boggess’ performance of Dido’s lament at the opera’s conclusion.
This production will be given a second performance tomorrow, Sunday, April 30, at 2 p.m. It will again take place in the SFCM Concert Hall, which is located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Admission will be free, and neither reservations nor tickets will be required.