The Classical Style, Berkeley/Anya 17, San Francisco – review

With the arrival of June, the muse of lyric theatre takes wing over the Golden Gate. This month, although the San Francisco Opera has reopened its portals, within them one finds nothing more challenging than a Showboat/La traviata/Madama Butterfly diet. Yet with the arrival of two worthy local premieres and the promise of a Michael Tilson Thomas-conducted Peter Grimes, opera via unofficial operatic channels has never seemed so vital to this community.

For enlightened whimsy, Ojai North produced The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), with libretto by this year’s festival music director, pianist Jeremy Denk, and music by Steven Stucky. Premiered earlier in the month in southern California, this is doubtless the first opera ever inspired by a musicological study, in this case Charles Rosen’s landmark 1971 tome.

Denk’s wry scheme offers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven descending from heaven to find Rosen (sung with gruff authority by baritone Kim Josephson) to question him about their contemporary relevance, which he explains in a charming arioso. A pesky musicologist, babbling about contextualisation, interrupts Don Giovanni’s seduction of Donna Anna. A scene in a bar unites Tonic (without the gin) Dominant and Subdominant, who find that, despite their protestations, they cannot survive without each other. Beethoven grumbles, Mozart (in the guise of soprano Jennifer Zetlan) prances and Haydn mediates.

This sophisticated and benign vaudeville, rather casually staged by Mary Birnbaum in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, relies for its success on Stucky’s marvel of a pastiche score, which liberally dispenses Top 10 classical tunes before resolving in alien keys. This listener’s favourite moment: Josephson, in trenchcoat and eye patch, embodying the Tristan Chord, as the orchestra pines for Isolde. Robert Spano valiantly conducted the chamber orchestra calling itself The Knights. A 70-minute delight, this may not be an entertainment for the uninitiated: sponsor Cal Performances stuffed the programme book with a glossary of musical terms.

More sober fare came from Opera Parallèle, the community’s leading purveyor of contemporary music theatre. Last weekend’s North American premiere of Adam Gorb’s Anya 17, at the Marines’ Memorial Theater in San Francisco, billed itself as the first opera to deal with human trafficking (though a case might be made for Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri centuries ago). Sincerity counts for much in Ben Kaye’s libretto drawn from the headlines and in the British composer’s eclectic, tart score, which adroitly mingles mild dissonance with jazzy riffs and sour Weillesque lyricism.

In recounting the sad saga of Anya and the other women kidnapped and brought to a brothel in western Europe, Gorb, in one disturbing scene after another, dwells on the brutality inflicted upon these unfortunates at the hands of a pimp with all the compassion of an iceberg. The irony is thick in the air: compassion for Anya comes only from an old customer. It’s all pure melodrama, high in righteous indignation and short in character development and vocal eloquence.

Anya 17 was directed starkly by Brian Staufenbiel amid a blizzard of projections. Nicole Paiement conducted her 14-member onstage orchestra with brave commitment. Soprano Anna Noggle’s Anya led a cast imbued with a sense of grim purpose. Show Boat this was not.

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