Friday, August 4, 2017

Merola’s Rossini: Superior Music with Hit-or-Miss Staging

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Merola Opera Program presented the first of two performances of its second full-length fully-staged production in its 60th anniversary season. The offering was Gioachino Rossini’s two-act opera La Cenerentola. The title is the Italian rendering of the name “Cinderella;” but Rossini’s librettist departed from the plot-line of Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon,” transforming the original fairy tale into an Italian comedy of manners. When properly staged that transformation can be a confectionary delight, and Rossini served up some of his most engaging comic rhetoric in the interest of serving those confections in the best possible way.

Last night provided an excellent opportunity to appreciate how successful Rossini had been. Both vocalists and instrumentalists contributed to that opportunity, but the full impact of Rossini’s music owes much to the insights of conductor Mark Morash. A member of the Merola Faculty, Morash has been a “Merola regular” at least for as long as I have been attending Merola performances. Unless I am mistaken, he last presented Rossini in the summer of 2011, when Merola presented a double-cast production of The Barber of Seville.

Morash clearly appreciated that Rossini’s comedies are at their best when given a lighter-than-air interpretation. This was evident from the very beginning with his brisk and crisp account of the opera’s overture, deftly managing the wide swings in dynamic level without ever overplaying his hand. That technique then extended up to the stage, not only among the vocalists singing the designated roles but also in his handling of the male chorus, which amounts to a Greek chorus commenting on a farcical situation.

Most importantly he knew how to set just the right pace for the music to unfold the narrative. His pacing of the buffo arias for Don Magnifico (bass-baritone Andrew Hiers) were always right on the money, as was his ability to distinguish Magnifico’s vain and ugly daughters, Tisbe (mezzo Edith Grossman) and Clorinda (soprano Natalie Image), through musical means that complemented the visual. On the other hand Morash’s shaping of the score knew how to capture the virtues of the title character, whose real name is Angelina (mezzo Samantha Hankey), and match her to the musical “portrait” established for Prince Ramiro (tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro). Ciaramitaro may have had a bit too much punch when hitting his highest notes, but Morash was always there to keep his context in order.

Sadly, Director Chuck Hudson never came through with staging that did justice to Morash’s musical insights. This is not to suggest that he had no sense of humor. He delivered a variety of comic turns all of which certainly did justice to Ferretti’s libretto. However, once he made one of his gags work, he would not let go of it. As a result, what was at first funny quickly devolved into tiresome shtick. This was particularly evident in his handling of the chorus, but most of the individual character portrayals suffered as well. The one exception was probably bass-baritone Szymon Wach’s Alidoro, who came across as sort of a hybrid of Sarastro and Wotan. (One of Wach’s moves in handling Alidoro’s staff definitely recalled Wotan summoning the fire that would conceal Brünnhilde.)

Fortunately, there was more than enough to enjoy in Morash’s presentation of Rossini’s delightful music and in how all involved responded so well to his conducting.

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