Last night in the Southside Theater at Fort Mason, the Opera Academy of California (OAC) Summer Program For Emerging Singers gave the first of four performances of its final full production. The major work of the evening was, “Daphnis et Chloë,” a one-act operetta by Jacques Offenbach, composed in 1860, two years after the full-evening Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in Hades). Orphée had been a popular success through its ability to reduce almost the entire pantheon of Greek mythology to a crew of slapstick sex-obsessed bumblers.
In “Daphnis et Chloë” Offenbach narrowed his focus down to a single supernatural character, Pan; but the overall theme of sexual appetite has not changed. A viable subtitle might be, “An Innocent Shepherd and Shepherdess Discover Sex;” and, as might be guessed, Pan has a lot to do with that discovery. Everything about this tale is played to absurd extremes. Daphnis and Chloë are both too innocent for words, which is why it is a good thing that they spend most of their time singing. Pan, on the other hand, is a statue with a knack for coming to life at awkward moments. The other characters are eight Bacchantes, who worship Pan and are all in love with Daphnis; and Chloë’s favorite sheep (who never sings but has a speaking role … of sorts).
Richard Harrell staged this farce with the same go-for-broke gusto he had applied to the San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theatre production of Orphée in April of 2009. He cooked up any number of ways to put the entire cast through their paces while letting them all shine vocally. The cast will rotate across the four performances; but the vocal blending of the duet work for soprano Chloë (Jennifer Mitchell) and mezzo Daphnis (Genie Tjahjadi) was particularly effective. For his part Richard Block endowed Pan with all of the necessary absurdity, while Carolyn Bacon seemed to have mastered the fine art of scene-stealing as Chloë’s sheep.
The evening began with two far more serious reflections on source texts by Alexander Pushkin. The opening scene from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was followed by the death scene from Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, both staged by Yefim Maizel. The latter has a single cast for all four performances, providing an excellent opportunity to appreciate Block’s polished bass voice in the title role. We tend to associate this opera with large-scale spectacle. However, Maizel distilled the action down to requiring a minimum of props, focusing entirely on the essence of Boris’ final interior monologue. (He is singing to his son, Fyodor; but he is actually dealing with his personal demons as he feels the end of his life approaching.) This bare-bones approach was impressively effective and allowed those of us on the audience side to focus on the character of Boris that Pushkin had created, rather than the historical figure.
The Onegin scene was also all about character. Musically, this introductory episode shows Tchaikovsky’s capacity for counterpoint at its best. Through that device he enables the interleaving of the diverse points of view of the six major characters in the plot. Those who know the opera can appreciate how deftly Tchaikovsky introduced all six of these characters to us, each skillfully conceived to allow us to anticipate his/her trajectory through the plot that will unfold. Here, again, there will be a rotating cast; but the scene is sustained through its skillful emphasis on group interaction.
The remaining three performances will take place tonight (Friday, July 26) and tomorrow night (Saturday, July 27) at 8 p.m., concluding with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday, July 28; tickets for all performances are available through a common Brown Paper Tickets event page.