By Rodney Punt
LOS ANGELES – What happens to you if you’re a Rossini opera that receives its premiere in between Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, both of which become smash hits? If your title is La gazzetta (The Newspaper), you languish in obscurity for two centuries. Adding insult to injury, your overture gets appropriated for a Cinderella story. But if you wait long enough, there is a happy ending.
Call it a retro-chic revival. In 2001, just as newspapers began to die out, this Neapolitan confection was suddenly rediscovered, and it enjoyed productions in major European cities and in Boston, spurred by a new critical edition by Stefano Scipioni and Philip Gossett. On June 28, that version of La gazzetta, with one augmentation, received its West Coast premiere in a production by Pacific Opera Project, enchanting its capacity audience at the Highland Park Ebell Club. Remaining performances are scheduled for July 6 and 7.
The added feature, not in the work from its 1816 premiere until the current decade, was the restoration of a lost quintet that ends the first of the work’s two acts, discovered as recently as 2011. (Gossett was able to authenticate it before he died last year, a final flourish to a storied musicological career.) The quintet is a highlight, partly because some of its tunes are familiar from Il barbiere di Siviglia but mostly because its vocal accelerando works itself into a frenzy, becoming the biggest single rouser in an evening full of them.
Set at the Parisian L’Aquile Hotel, the libretto is brought to life by Don Pomponio, a pompous rotundity (engaging buffo bass E. Scott Levin) who has just placed a notice in the local newspaper announcing the marriage availability of his daughter Lisetta (high-flying coloratura soprano Rachel Policar) to the right man with the right dowry. But the willful Lisetta, already in love with hotel owner Filippo (lyric baritone Armando Contreras), will have none of it. Soon the feckless Alberto (high lyric tenor Kyle Patterson) shows up searching for his own potential wife. Another father, Anselmo (amiable buffo bass Phil Meyer), comes to visit with his daughter Doralice (mezzo-soprano Molly Clementz), who is in turn pestered by old roué Monsù Traversen (elegant bass Scott Ziemann). Meanwhile, wealthy busy-body Madama la Rose (mezzo-soprano Jessie Shulman) keeps things stirred up.
The story, in some form or another, may seem as old as the hills, but that’s not the point. Rossini’s genius keeps it fresh and fizzy, meeting head-on the challenge in the buffo work to balance plot devices while providing equal opportunity for the singers with his musical novelties. Not surprisingly, given an abundance of roles for principals, characters are defined more by interaction than introspection.
Director-designer Josh Shaw, a hot talent on the opera scene these days, and deservedly so, keeps the action at the L’Aquile Hotel, but updates the era to 1963, giving it the feel of a last hurrah for the Mad Men era. The epoch allows a credible use of newspaper advertising for Don Pomponio’s greedy scheme for his daughter.
Shaw’s 1950’s-style pop culture sets and Maggie Green’s garish Las Vegas-meets-Fifth Avenue costumes – in hot pinks, violets, oranges, and lime greens – convey a Rat Pack wackiness that might see itself as conjuring breakfast at Tiffany’s but more closely resembles brunch in Pigalle. Pomponio’s dark-blue sharkskin suit, with its garish gold vest, announces his sleazy pomposity without a note sung. Energetic bellhops and chamber maids juice up the frenetic but precisely controlled pacing while decorating the scene like an old Dean Martin show.
The Highland Park Ebell Club, a lovable Los Angeles relic whose long-gone better days work in favor of Shaw’s cheeky-cheesy vision, serves as the perfect atmosphere, if not the perfect acoustic, for the seedy supper-club feel of the production. The action takes place on two adjacent sides of the main hall’s four walls, with the audience seated at small cocktail tables in the flat center floor.
From Don Pomponio’s first extended solo (a kind of reverse-catalog aria from that of Leporello in Don Giovanni), where he brags of husband candidates from every nation coming for his girl, to the table-turning young couples (Alberto and Doralice, now paired up), with their mock sword fights eventually humbling the proud Pomponio, the production keeps the energy high and wide. Clever supertitles hew close to the original libretto but are updated topically with Americana references, like the band of black-suited Quakers who come-a-calling for the hand of Lisetta.
What impresses even more than the gags, the clever sets, the whip-snap comic timing, and even the splendid singing talent heard on opening night is Rossini’s ever-inventive music. It doesn’t matter that a hyper-busy Rossini uses part of his Il barbiere di Siviglia for the first-act quintet, or that he later employs this work’s overture for Cenerentola. There is so much more to enjoy in the opera, with its impressive eight arias and varied ensembles. Of the latter, there are two quintets, two quartets, two trios, and two duets as well as two elaborate finales with chorus and all eight principals. All of them tease and enchant.
Which brings up the fine work of the chamber orchestra, led with remarkable precision by Brooke deRosa, who has reduced Rossini’s traditional score to an ensemble of ten instruments, plus a harpsichord-sounding keyboard for the recitatives. The ensemble made up in intimacy and clarity what it lacked in plush string sheen. This was especially so in the solo arias, where the interplay of woodwinds with vocalists included virtuoso touches by Shelby Huber’s clarinet, Eve Banuelos’ flute, and Summer Arano’s bassoon. DeRosa’s propulsive tempi and sharp rhythms kept her orchestra in uncanny synchronization with the eight principals and choral forces across the room throughout the evening.
It was all so very charming and energizing. Bravi, tutti.
Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.