Valentines weekend has washed over us. Emotions are high and strewn over oceans of not-so-clear-what-we-are relationships across America. Amid all of the chaotic desperation and chocolate, however, I could be found in my office on Friday bumping Billie Holiday and Etta James in an attempt to blues the holiday out of my memory.
Higher expectations day, as I like to call it, was spent working and then attending a local ballet, which was pleasant to be sure, but the highlight of my weekend was Saturday night’s opera at the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.
As a single, “independent” woman I accompanied Robert Rivard and his wife, Monika Maeckle (providing the perfect third wheel for stability) to the Opera Piccola of San Antonio’s “Bastien And Bastienne” and “La Curandera.” The two comedic works center on frustrated lovers, which inevitably provided existential moments of clarity for my bitter and sad state. The performance, however, is accessible for all – not just blues-listening singles. Both pieces conclude on a high note designed to reaffirm the audience’s faith in love and relationships.
Currently in its second season of producing professional intimate opera, Opera Piccola strives to present “artistically stimulating performances that are both accessible and affordable for all.” The first piece, “Bastien and Bastienne,” – written by a 12-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – definitely delivered on the accessibility front.
The philosopher, Dr. Colas, begins seated in the audience. He then invites the onlookers to listen in and take notes during his lecture on the troubles of love. The story follows Bastienne, a shepherdess, who fears that her love interest, Bastien, has forsaken her for another woman. Bastienne runs into Dr. Colas and requests the help of his magical powers to help win back her man.
His advice is to act indifferent toward Bastien until he comes running back (works every time ladies). Angry singing ensues until the couple is finally united and Colas joins them as they all sing a final trio in praise of the magician.
This piece was well received by the audience, due in large part to the fantastic frantic and female-angst ridden performance from Phillippine-born soprano Dee Donasco. Paul Goodwin-Groen brought the funny as Dr. Colas and was a joy to watch.
The Charline McCombs Empire Theatre is a great choice for a more intimate concert-going experience, and is probably my favorite venue in the city (no offense, Majestic). It has gold leafing and a royal undertone without a pretentious ambiance. The use of a live orchestra earned the Opera Piccola extra points in my book. I understand that live musicians incur additional costs, thus lessening profits, but nothing adds to a performance like live, visibly created music. The sacrifice is undeniably worth it. For this first piece, a string quintet was utilized. The ensemble added enough melodic awesomeness without overwhelming the audience, although I think a few extra violins have never hurt anybody and may have filled out the sound a bit more.
My biggest problem with “Bastien And Bastienne” was the set design. Very minimal props were used. A huge white sheet hung on the left hand side of the stage and a chair was brought out at some point on which Colas could rest as the lovers fought. I did appreciate, however, that proceeding “La Curandera” a cast member came out to “redecorate,” jokingly motioning to stagehands to get rid of the white sheet and wheel out some decorative elements to fill out the stage. The result was still not elaborate by any means, but much better than before to be sure.
Composed by local legend Robert Xavier Rodriguez (not to be confused with the filmmaker, also a San Antonio native, Robert A. Rodriguez), “La Curandera” – based on “Bastien and Bastienne” – was entertaining but, to me, lacked a strong plot line. The work takes place in a fictitious hotel in a village near Mexico City and centers around a young couple, Alberto and Alba, flying in from the states to visit a beloved uncle. Alba answers Alberto’s phone to hear a female voice speaking only in Spanish and begins to suspect the worst. The rest of the work follows Alba as she attempts to rid her jealousy with the help of la curandera, a doctor trained in folk or herbal medicine.
The music during this piece was particularly strong with the addition of instruments including an accordion, trombone, trumpet and clarinet. Dee Donasco again played the role of jealous female hilariously well. Alissa Anderson belted out some powerful ballads as la curandera and added a grandiose element to her character. The playful acting was enough to make up for what the story line was lacking.
San Antonio, in general, lacks sufficient support for the performing arts. So it’s essential that presenting companies recognize the importance of accessibility to a larger audience. Opera Piccola has done just that by offering pieces easier to swallow than the complicated, full-set pieces of traditional opera.
Of all the performing arts, opera usually comes up near the bottom on my list of favorites, but Saturday night’s performance was a delightful surprise. It was the perfect Valentine’s weekend celebration. I recommend you convince your loved one or third wheel to tag along to Opera Piccola’s upcoming performance in May of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus and Euridice” and “Green Sneakers.”
*Featured/top photo by Kristian Jaime Photography.