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Out of the Box - page 4

Sleepwalking in Chinatown

It’s not a huge step “Out of the Box” from being a Super to being a chorister (erstwhile Prince of Persia Keith Perry did it a few years ago) but Larry Severino has been living a double operatic life, both supering and singing chorus and compramari in some of the smaller Bay Area opera companies such as the SF Lyric Opera and, now, California Opera.

During April, California Opera did three performances of the under-valued Bellini masterpiece La Sonnambula in San Francisco, as well as performances in Pacifica and Rossmoor. Although it is a very difficult opera to perform because of the vocal demands on the sleepwalking soprano, they put on a very credible production, with Jamie Bonetto as the title character, Amina, doing an outstanding job throughout, with the elaborate coloratura of her two final arias "Ah, non credea mirarti" and "Ah! Non giungi" (although it was a mistake to interrupt them with narration) in particular. The confused hero Elvino was beautifully sung by tenor Jimmy Kansau, who had the heartbroken sob in his voice that serves Bellini so well.

Basso Sergey Zadvorny sang the role of the enigmatic Count Rodolfo with a genuine and remarkable vocal presence (even though he did not quite match up to the dashing figure in an officer’s uniform in which he was introduced) that was luxury casting for such a small role. His singing should inspire CA Opera to produce one of the smaller scale Russian operas for him. It would undoubtedly draw a good crowd from the émigrés we always see showing up for the Russian works at the War Memorial. A small orchestra of violin, cello, flute and Galina Umanskaya on piano played the florid score beautifully, under the direction of Jonathan Erman.

I do believe there has to be an audience for well sung, low-production-value performances of recondite operas in the Bay Area (especially off-season like this) but the challenge for CA Opera is to reach it. The production was not well advertised and attendance should have been higher. Although they made a valiant effort to stage the piece it proved distracting under the harsh lighting of Old St. Mary’s.

Perhaps, in future, they might be better served by dropping the costuming in favor of evening dress, singing from music stands rather than staging it and putting their efforts into theatrical lighting. "Ah, non credea" is one of bel canto’s most beautiful and transporting arias and a simple spotlight would have worked wonders. But the group has good singers to work with and if they can survive by singing rarely performed operas they could fill a big need in the area. Pocket Opera, unfortunately, has become a little tired after a few years.

As for “our Larry” he shone in the chorus (which plays such an important role in Sonnambula). He was in character throughout and brought some tried-and-true Super gestures to the proceedings. There to cheer him on at this performance (there were generous discounts on admission for SFO Supers) were the lovely Irene Bechtel, webmaster Mike Harvey, Charlie Lichtman, Chuck Yenson and myself. The evening gave us natives a rare excuse to wander through Chinatown, marvel at the souvenirs on display, and have a splendid dinner at the cheap and cheerful House of Nanking.

--Andrew Korniej

(update 4/18/2005) A Letter from Larry Severino

Mille grazie for coming to the performance Saturday. It's always comforting to have friends in the audience. I think the supers represented a good chunk of the audience that evening and Sunday, disappointedly, did not draw that much more audience.

Andrew, you are absolutely right the bane of small local opera companies is drawing enough audience and/or generous donors to support themselves. So for now we are just doing "fee per show" performances. Old St. Mary's would take care of promotion, tickets, liability insurance, providing a venue, etc. We would pay the ensemble, accompanist, principal singers (only a stipend), rehearsal accompanist, etc. At best the fee covers maybe a quarter of these expenses.

This is Old St. Mary's first try in utilizing the auditorium as a revenue producer (the church administrator is an opera lover). Certainly a little publicity amongst the parishioners doesn't do it. Another production is planned so, hopefully, things will improve. Pacifica (Sanchez Theater) and Rossmore always draw with their successful subscription series and retiree social program.

I’ll send (the review) on to the troops. FYI, tenor Jimmy Kansau is in the extra chorus this year. He is quite talented.

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