The Hotel Casablanca

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A ubiquitous presence on the American opera scene a generation ago, Thomas Pasatieri has re-embraced the lyric muse this summer after toiling for years in the Hollywood film music colony. To judge by this two-act comedy, Pasatieri’s 19th opera and second premiere this year, the composer has not lost his gift for making singers, if not necessarily audiences or critics, fall in love with his facile, conservative idiom.

Supplying his own libretto, Pasatieri has adapted Georges Feydeau’s classic belle époque farce A Flea in Her Ear, arbitrarily transposing the play to 1948 Texas cattle country, where the word “stud” assumes multiple meanings. The louche inn where the plot boils over has become a neon- festooned roadhouse in which the sex-hungry and sex-anguished characters conceal themselves in closets and under beds. Ranchers, bull breeders, worried wives and wannabe movie starlets proliferate and the marriage bond is never traduced, virtue is never in doubt.

Pasatieri evinces the virtues of yesteryear. He delights in uncomplicated melody and transparent harmonies. He writes in a smooth manner that respects the parameters of an artist’s vocal range. He sets texts with a pristine clarity that renders projected titles (as here) redundant. He orchestrates with a consummate ear for the telling detail.

Unfortunately, Pasatieri lacks the heartlessness for farce, and he allows a measure of sentimentality to intrude, as the narrative halts in its tracks repeatedly for extended vocal turns that are often peripheral to the plot.

Nevertheless, the Merola Opera Program, the training wing of the San Francisco Opera, lavished enormous dedication on the first premiere in its distinguished 50-year history. Joseph Illick conducted the orchestra of 17 players with uncommon verve and a superior ear for balances. The director Richard Kagey left no comic device unexploited. The cast featured a handful of singers marked for stellar careers. The tenor Andrew Bidlack introduced a pliant technique as the ingénu who sets the plot in motion. The baritone Nathaniel Hackmann scored comic points as a jealous husband in a Zorro cape. The soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine’s wistful actress stops the show, unfortunately, when it most needs to speed on.

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