Love and Secrets: A Domestic Trilogy

Vanessa Becerra, Efraín Solís in “Il Segreto di Susanna.” All photos by Ian Fullmer.

What a pleasure to see Bay Area opera companies offering alternatives to traditional live performance productions until we are able to return to the opera houses to experience their magnificence as intended.  Following its streaming production of “Three Decembers” by Jake Heggie, Opera San José now offers a curated trilogy of one-act operas.  Marital relationships, or more loosely, love constitutes the common bond among the trio.  With each requiring only two singing parts, they are highly conducive to the strictures of pandemic era productions.

The outcome is splendid.  All of the stellar performers excel in their singing and acting artistry, and director Tara Branham takes advantage of the assets that the electronic medium has to offer opera.  Yes – there are some pluses to opera production designed for film.  Mobile cameras allow different perspectives rather than the fixed point of view in a theater.  Close up shots add an appealing intimacy, and these artists thrive in the visual immediacy.  Blocking varies more, as singers needn’t have concern about projecting voice forward toward the audience.  And staging has been scaled to more realistic proportions than the stage filling requirements of a theatrical setting.

The three operas frame the 20th century, embracing widely different styles.  The anchor to the program, both in terms of its place in the repertoire and its length, is Wolf-Ferrari’s charming Italian opera buffa from 1909, “Il Segreto di Susanna.”  It opens the program, but as the only comedy, it might be better positioned as the closer, to leave the audience more upbeat at the end, just as “Gianni Schicchi” often closes Puccini’s “Il Trittico.”  Joining “Il Segreto” are the more brittle mid-century American “Four Dialogues” by Ned Rorem, and finally, from 1993, another American entry, the brief and melancholic “The Husbands” by Tom Cipullo.

The one-trick plot line of “Il Segreto di Susanna” is straightforward.  Bubbly young bride Susanna has been surreptitiously smoking, and when husband Gil returns home to smell the smoke, he fumes, assuming that she has a lover.  Even when Susanna thinks she has confessed to her transgression, Gil thinks she’s admitted to an illicit relationship rather than smoking.  Thus, they argue at cross purposes.  The light comedy is disrupted by Gil’s rage scene, which turns into an unlikely opera event, a hilarious pillow fight.

Musically, the opera holds to the 19th century Italian tradition of great lyricism and melody, with a pleasant score, highlighted by the harmonious duet “Dear memories” and Susanna’s aria “What a joy to follow the blue spiral.”  Vanessa Becerra is sweet as Susanna and uses her bright voice and delicate vibrato to good effect.  Efraín Solís pairs well as the righteous, jealous Gil, and a strings plus piano chamber orchestra provides a lush backing to a delightful rendition of this little gem.

Carlos Enrique Santelli , Marnie Breckenridge in “Four Dialogues.”

“Four Dialogues,” which composer Rorem based on the poetry of Frank O’Hara is cleverly comprised of four short vignettes representing the episodes in a relationship, from chance meeting through romance, marriage, and unfortunately, dissolution.  The tight formula with everchanging character affect and musical treatment encapsulates the life cycle of a couple. Although its musical idiom is generally modern opera form, the sultry duet “You’re burning like fire” is melodic and quite captivating as sung by Marnie Breckenridge and Carlos Enrique Santelli.  “And my heart is going gray” provides an appropriate sorrowful conclusion. 

Eugene Brancoveanu, Ashley Dixon in “The Husbands.”

Tom Cipullo’s “The Husbands” is a sad and mysterious reminiscence set to an excerpt of William Carpenter’s poem “Rain.”  Ashley Dixon plays a widow on a bus tour in New England along with other widows.  Their lives are full of routine exchanges about their children and children’s children and deceased husbands and the doleful existence of ordering extra meals at restaurants for lost soulmates.  Eugene Brancoveanu plays a man who the widow communes with, seeming at first to be a local observer and then transitioning into the spirit of the husband. Together, the couple contemplates eternity in the poignant conversation.

Each opera in the program is well-staged – an ornate drawing room for “Il Segreto,” and hanging artistic panels as backdrop for “Four Dialogues” and “The Husbands,” but with distinguishing props. Placement and movement are thoughtful throughout.  One (Ingmar) Bergmanesque symbolic moment of note appears in the dissolution scene of “Four Dialogues” with a close up of the couple in profile, facing as if toward each other but actually in different planes and looking past each other. The lighting in “The Husbands” is particularly absorbing, playing on the autumn red tree leaves in the outdoor scene and isolating the characters from the world around them.

The domestic trilogy pleases and compels.  Much credit goes to Opera San José for translating these pieces to film with great skill.  One enhancement would be to provide some connective tissue with introductions to the operas and explaining their selection and development.

“Love and Secrets: A Domestic Trilogy,” comprised of “Il Segreto di Susanna” composed by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari with libretto by Enrico Golisciani, “Four Dialogues” by Ned Rorem based on the poetry of Frank O’Hara, and “The Husbands” composed by Tom Cipullo with lyrics by William Carpenter is produced by Opera San José and streams online through May 15, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The Waste Land

Solo performer Lisa Ramirez. All photos by Carson French.

“April is the cruelest month…..”  This famous line opens T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” generally regarded as one of the finest pieces of modern literature.  At its best, this 434-line epic poem oozes symbolism and begs never-ending analysis of its trenchant insights.  Yet, like its opening line, “The Waste Land” contains endless contradictions and ambiguities.  Indeed, Eliot provided lengthy annotations of the poem in its original publication, though some of those confuse rather than illuminate.  Detractors would submit that his episodic narrative with leaps in time, and changes in speakers and narrative style lacks cohesion.  But perhaps that reflected the way he saw the new world around him.  Further, Eliot’s frequent allusions to other literary works and use of untranslated foreign languages may seem to impress rather than inform.

John Wilkens has adapted “The Waste Land” to the stage as a vehicle for a solo performer.  Oakland Theater Project has produced the staging, starring the multi-talented Lisa Ramirez and directed by Michael Socrates Moran.  This production is the first live performance with a live audience sanctioned by Actors Equity in the state of California since the start of the pandemic.  But to accomplish the approval, the performance is outdoors, and the audience remain in their cars.  The good news with this arrangement is that the cars are parked one-deep, so that sight lines are great and the audience is close to the performer.  The audio comes through FM on the car radio.  The bad news, for the company, is that audience size is seriously limited.

Because the poem tells stories in different voices and perspectives, it is conducive to dramatic staging.  For those who wish to expand their intellectual horizons but can’t muster the motivation to read Eliot’s masterpiece, Ramirez’s recitation with impressive interpretive movement, and variation of voicing, affect, and intensity captures the viewer’s attention in a manner that few readers would self-engender.  And the performance offers an admirable dose of high-brow culture in well under an hour.  As a fine actor, Ramirez does emote effectively, although her voice is not long on the gravitas often associated with poetry reading. 

This production offers the added stimulation of projected images to enhance the lyrics and acting.  A video preface to the live performance of brief clips covers the history from when the poem was written to current day – a reminiscence of iconic snippets embracing everything from pop culture to war, while videos within the body of the play largely support the text.  In the absence of a printed program, I am unable to credit the creator.  Few props appear on the earthen parking-lot “stage.”  One used to pleasant effect is a strummed mandolin, which accompanies Ramirez as she delivers the words of the blind, Greek prophet, Tiresias, in a manner akin to an opera recitative. The overall impact of the production is provocative and engaging.

The poet doesn’t refer explicitly to a waste land, so what is the poem about?  The dominant received wisdom is that it concerns loss.  Published in 1922, American-born Eliot had lived for a decade in England, which had just suffered through World War I, and concurrently, the (inappropriately named!) Spanish Flu epidemic.  Sensing that the massive loss of life and destruction of property had permanently displaced pre-war society, Eliot foresaw a bleak future.  The poem is written in five distinct sections.  The first, “The Burial of the Dead” establishes the overriding motif, and the speaker, Marie, evidences loss of station and things when she leaves childhood behind.  The most direct reference to the uncertainty ahead appears in the final section, “What the Thunder Said,” with an expressed reference to the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” providing the analogy to failed civilization.

“The Waste Land” particularly resonates as a corollary to our time.   The impact of Covid-19 in the United States now approaches that of the Spanish Flu, though worldwide, the latter was 15 times more deadly than Covid-19 has been to date.  And while a devastating military war loomed in Eliot’s consciousness, this country now faces a cultural war that increasingly cleaves us into two disparate camps with little common ground between us, and in which, tragically, a large segment of the population representing one of those camps even refuses to accept empirical facts that disconfirm what they wish to believe. 

“The Waste Land” is written by T. S. Eliot, adapted by John Wilkens, and produced by Oakland Theater Project.  It plays in live performance drive-in theater format at the company’s home, Flax art + design, 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway, Oakland, CA through May 16, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
American Theatre Critics Association
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle