Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the first full-length fully-staged production in the 60th anniversary season of the Merola Opera Program was given the first of two performances. The program was a triple bill of one-act operas, each involving only three characters. The result was an opportunity to appreciate extended passages of deft solo and duo work by selected Merolini. These opportunities were relatively evenly distributed across three highly varied selections, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “La serva padrona” (the servant mistress), Gustav Holst’s Mahabharata-based “Savitri,” and William Walton’s “The Bear,” based on a play of the same title by Anton Chekhov.
Where vocal talent was involved, it was clear that the audience was in good hands as soon as bass-baritone Daniel Noyola sang the opening notes of the Pergolesi opera. He clearly appreciated the buffo nature of Uberto, master of the title character, Serpina. Vocally, soprano Jana McIntyre’s Serpina could not have been a better match in that role. Both vocalists had a solid sense of pitch matched with the light delivery so necessary in comic opera from any century. Sadly, this sometimes involved prevailing over Christopher Ocasek’s conducting, which not only had lapses in its lightness of touch but also never quite realized that “da capo” does not mean “do it exactly the same way again.”
Matters were not helped by the decision of Director Peter Kazaras to pay more attention to the mimed role of the servant Vespone (bass-baritone David Weigel) than to exploring different ways to use the da capo structure to flesh out the personalities of the leading roles. Vespone came across as sort of an early ancestor of Harpo Marx; and, to his credit, Weigel’s mime technique was irresistible. Indeed, it was so irresistible that it frequently felt as if Kazaras was frustrated that both Serpina and Uberto kept getting in the way of his contrivances.
Holst’s opera fared much better. The narrative involves the young wife Savitri (soprano Kelsea Webb) outwitting Yama, the god of Death (Weigel, singing this time), to save the life of her husband Satyavan (tenor Addison Marlor). Kazaras used both the program book and the projected titles to establish a relationship between this narrative and the tremendous number of British casualties that arose from the Battle of the Somme during the First World War.
Visually, the action was translated from the mythic world of Mahabharata to an English country house. (Think Brideshead.) While Kazaras’ concept was ingenious, the extended opening in silence depicting Savitri writing at a vast table did little to establish her character. Ultimately, both male roles were much more sharply conceived and rendered, which sadly blunted the reason why Savitri’s character was strong enough to challenge Death and prevail. Weigel’s depiction of Death was the more compelling, even if he had more than a little trouble maintaining pitch in his opening a cappella solo.
Where “The Bear” was concerned, problems began with the opera itself. Working with Paul Dehn, Walton conceived a libretto which repeated itself far too often. The result was a sad disservice to Chekhov, whose original narrative was so compact that it fit both neatly and effectively into a half-hour episode of Have Gun – Will Travel (complete with commercial interruptions). Conceivably, Kazaras could have compensated for the text’s shortcomings by fleshing out the intersecting trajectories of the title character (Smirnov, sung by bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum) and the “eternal widow” Popova (mezzo Ashley Dixon) with a bit of variety in the details. Both of these vocalists were impressive, but there was a limit to how many times one could sit through their exercising the same schtick over and over again.