Chamber Opera Players of Los Angeles (COPOLA) brought a polished pair of comedic one-act operas to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church’s Parish Hall in Glendale, CA, on Friday, May 23rd and Saturday, May 24th, 2014.
Sunday Excursion was the hors d’oeuvres of the evening. Written by Alec Wilder in 1953, it is set in the early half of the 20th century and features a tidy cast of five excellent singers on a set simulating the interior of a long train car. In fact, at the top of the show, the train’s candy butcher, Tim (bass-baritone Ryan Thorn), ushers the audience onto the “train” and, in a delightful play on words, announces the arrival of the conductor, David Rentz, to start the train (and the downbeat of the opera.) Impressive at the grand piano, Daniel Gledhill accompanies both operas. Soon, the actors board the train themselves, taking seats at the elevated “front rows” of the car, facing the audience, cleverly creating visibility and ambiance.
Over the course of their train ride home from the city, two pairs of college students, ladies Alice (soprano Ariel Pisturino) and Veronica (mezzo-soprano Jessica Mamey), and gentlemen Hillary (tenor Robert Norman) and Marvin (baritone E. Scott Levin), both commiserate on their disappointing excursion. They wish they had stayed at home. The two duos, who did not go to town together, now take notice of each other. Alice and Marvin dislike each other (“He’s/She’s a know-it-all,”) while Veronica and Hillary, though unacquainted, are feeling attracted to one another from afar.
From the beginning, the singers take command of the music, conductor and accompanist are in sync, and the quality of the musicianship is undeniable. Lyric and line roll off like conversational dialogue and honest musings. Though singing seated, every singer shows beautiful resonance throughout their range, along with impeccable intonation. It is no chore for the audience to keep up with the comedy of the dialogue, as the diction, coloring, and acting are well knit-together by each actor.
When Alice and Marvin refuse to introduce Veronica and Hillary, as was considered proper in the day, a fugue-like quartet of inner thoughts takes place. Each friend expresses bewilderment. Hillary: “I wish I had come alone,” Alice: “I never dreamt she [Veronica] was wild!” Veronica: “She’s [Alice] really a horrid girl,” and Marvin: “Oh why does he [Hillary] act like child?”
In a charming series of events, Alice and Marvin are forced to converse politely and end up liking each other. Pisturino and Levin are radiant-faced, sounding bright and flirtatious. They make Hillary and Veronica switch seats with them, and those two strike up an immediate romance and share a Hershey bar. Norman and Mamey have naturalness in their physicalization of their romantic electricity. It all ends in a satisfying comic turn, with all singing, “Gee, but I’m glad we took the excursion!”
Throughout, the composer uses interludes with Tim the Candy Butcher to break up the story. Thorn’s comedic abilities and booming voice brought to life the less-than-two-minute monologue he has each time he arrives, hawking apples (later, candy, and later still, magazines) to all the passengers. Thorn is so jovial and home-grown in his delivery, that one really wishes we could interrupt the opera and buy an apple from him. Director Josh Shaw has Thorn walk completely through the train car, making this dynamic scene a nice contrast to the seated scenes.
For the second half, three of the singers presented The Man on the Bearskin Rug, by Paul Ramsier, which premiered in 1973. As lights come up on a modest apartment, Doris (Pisturino) leads a dejected-looking Henry (Levin) through the front door, having temporarily left worldly neighbor Sydney’s fabulous dinner party, where there are “all the best people.” Doris complains about Henry’s social awkwardness and returns to the party alone for a spell. The room feels prickly. Pisturino delivers Doris’ materialistic, irritated tirade in her beautifully supported soprano, navigating high leaps with ease, clarity, and solid intonation. (She also looks fabulous in a black dinner gown, gloves, and rhinestones!) Poor Henry responds, “Yes, dear.” Levin’s choice of color and defeated posture are wonderfully discordant with his outer, tuxedo-bedecked appearance.
Enter the nosy landlady, Mrs. Le Moine, (Mamey, donning bathrobe, hair rollers, and mud-mask), who is staying up past her bedtime in order to deliver to Henry a mysterious, human-sized package that has just arrived… from Seattle! When the package is finally opened, an enormous bearskin rug is drawn out, and they place it on the floor, although Henry objects.
It turns out that in stepping upon the bearskin rug, the mood of the room lifts (with accompanied lighting changes, designed by Shaw), and one feels sensual and uninhibited. A quirky, romantic Mrs. Le Moine makes advances, mud-mask and all, on a paralyzed Henry. The acting between these two is delightfully naturalistic. Levin’s deer-in-headlights expression combines with Mamey’s “fan-kick of seduction” from a reclined position, to great comedic effect.
Returning from Sydney’s, Doris interrupts this embrace, quite jilted, and Mrs. Le Moine departs. A quite different Henry sings, “Anything can happen on a bearskin,” drawing Doris onto the rug, where the magic overtakes them both, leading to a passionate embrace. All just might end well! Mrs. Le Moine, re-entering unabashedly, is scandalized by this display, having forgotten her own episode – the interplay among these three is simply magical.
Unhappily, Doris and Henry do not get to keep the bearskin, and once it is removed from the apartment, the magic dissipates, and they are back to their prickly selves, where Henry’s response to the over-bearing Doris is once again, “Yes, Dear.”
Copola gives their patrons the experience of a sophisticated evening. They create such a charming space, from greeters to tastefully placed donation baskets, from bartenders serving wine and gourmet refreshments to off-stage set pieces, (like a sign-post matching the cities mentioned in the first act), that one can only expect enjoyment at COPOLA’s upcoming Halloween-themed production. Invite newcomers, play-lovers, and opera-lovers alike — at the end of the evening, they are sure to remark, “Gee, but I’m glad we took the excursion!”