Musical Notes Graphic

It was an opera weekend.

Long Beach Opera presented Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” (The Human Voice) at the Federal Bar’s Underground Club downtown. And the Opera Institute at the Bob Cole Conservatory mounted a production of Bedřich Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” at the University Theatre.

One was a one-woman show, the other a (double) cast of dozens. One was professional, the other high-quality collegiate. One was stark and somber, the other riotously colorful. Both were very well done.

First, Long Beach Opera. The space formerly known as the Vault was the perfect setting for Cocteau’s intimate drama, the searing portrait of a tortured woman trying to hang onto her lover by the slender thread of a telephone line. Suzan Hanson, who has dominated the stage in a number of roles with LBO, here had it all to herself, and delivered a magnificent performance, vocally and dramatically. Her anguish was palpable, while her voice conveyed every nuance of Poulenc’s music.

The first half was devoted to a sort of salon featuring vocal and instrumental music of Poulenc and Erik Satie. Robin Buck served as master of ceremonies and sang three songs from Poulenc’s cycle “Le Travail du Peintre,” inspired by the work of Picasso, Juan Gris and Miró. Cellist Christopher E. Brown played the first movement of the Poulenc Sonata and violist Seulgee Park, an amazing sophomore who was principal in “The Bartered Bride” the next night, the Romanze from his Clarinet Sonata. Both played arrangements of Satie’s Gymnopédies, and Buck hilariously performed a weird concoction of something called “Three distinguished waltzes of a Jaded Dandy” by the same composer. For both salon and opera, Kristof Van Grysperre supplied crisp, powerful and stylish pianism.

They’re doing great work these days at the Opera Institute, as evidenced by this production of “The Bartered Bride,” performed in English. The cast I saw possessed strong, fresh voices that easily and attractively maneuvered through Smetana’s vocal lines. Jack Wilkins was an engaging Jeník, Jeanine Robertson a perky, sensitive Mařenka, here called Marie. Michael Valentekovic was properly oily as the marriage broker, and Blake Larsen’s Vašek was appropriately goofy. The small roles were all well taken.

This opera relies on a strong chorus and orchestra. How nice that Brian Farrell’s chorus and Johannes Müller-Stosch’s orchestra were both terrific, and that the latter conducted with his customary authority and dash. Alan Muraoka, who did wonderful things with Long Beach Opera awhile back, contributed a striking set design. Jacqueline Saint Anne’s bizarre, brightly colored costumes almost stole the show, and the circus atmosphere they created was enhanced by actual circus performers.

If I had quibbles with Andrew Chown’s direction, they were just quibbles, and the movements were all energetic and purposeful, the drama believable. All in all, this production showed how really enjoyable college opera can be when performed at such a high level.

There’s excellent opera in Long Beach if you know where to look.

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