The Adlers: Live at the Drive-In

2021 San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows and concert piano accompanyists. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The experiment continues.  San Francisco Opera broke new ground with their production of “Barber of Seville” – live performances of an opera at a “drive-in” with music delivered by FM radio to patrons seated in their vehicles.  Now the company’s resident artists, the Adler Fellows, are giving their annual concert series at the same venue, the beautiful and versatile, Frank Lloyd Wright designed Marin Center.  With the Fellows’ talent, they could delight an audience by performing anywhere.  In this case, they sing from the same purpose-built stage as “Barber”, which comprises a repurposed set originally designed for the company’s “Fidelio.” That production was cancelled due to the pandemic.  In addition to viewing the singers in the flesh, large projection screens provide close ups.

Singers wearing pandemic-induced rehearsal masks especially-designed for San Francisco Opera. Photo by Kristen Loken.

The hour-long program consists of sixteen musical numbers written by almost as many composers.  Appropriately, signature opera pieces dominate, with memorable music that suits this type of event, supplemented by a mix from other domains.

Highlights of the evening are very much determined by the subjective ears of the listener.  One that is almost universally appreciated is the gold standard of tenor-baritone duets, “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs de Perles.”  Its heightening drama of two men loving the same woman, with the slow crescendo leading to sensational melodies and harmonies are passionately delivered by Christopher Oglesby and Timothy Murray.

Another vocal extravaganza is well known outside the opera world as well. In “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Hertz,” better known as the “Queen of the Night aria” from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte,” the lady with dark intentions screeches her vengeance.  Elisa Sunshine makes the daring coloratura number pop with its thrilling high-pitched “ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-aaah” sequences.  Like other artists, Sunshine had to deal with the weather, but she blew away the audience while the blustery wind blew her dress a bit sideways.

The other rat-a-tat number that gets the toes tapping rapid fire is from outside the opera realm, but penned by the great Gioachino Rossini.  “La Danza” is a southern Italian folk tarantella from the composer’s “Les soirées musicales.”   Zhengyi Bai brightly sings and charmingly conveys its conviviality.

Of course, sublime finds a significant place on the evening’s menu, with some of the most beautiful melodies from all of opera, each sung with great artistry.  Among those, Anne-Marie MacIntosh and Simone McIntosh (alert – there are no typos in those surnames) take on the haunting barcarolle “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” with luminous delight.  Also, Esther Tonea and Simone McIntosh’s ethereal voices shimmer in the subtle dual melodies of “Cosa mi narri…Sull’aria,” from Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

Christopher Colmenero is earnest and expressive in his rendition of the affirming “Freunde, das Leben ist Lebenswert,” from Lehár’s “Giuditta.”  Perhaps the warmest, richest voice is that of bass Stefan Egerstrom who sings “Some enchanted evening” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”  Each of the several remaining offerings from Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, Gounod, and others add to the program and display the Fellows’ substantial gifts.

The cast lifts a toast. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Because of social distancing restrictions, performers are separated into the cubicles of the set – two levels, each constituted of several defined spaces.  Thus, shoulder-to-shoulder ensembles and celebratory hugfests are not doable this year.  That limitation, plus the absence of audience applause (though glowsticks that are provided to the audience were waved after numbers and there was plenty of horn honking at the end of this evening’s performance) takes a little edge off the ambiance of the event.  Although recitals are usually given in formal dress, the overall effect of the concert would be enhanced by dressing in costumery appropriate to each number.  Also, though cost may be a prohibitive factor, a fuller sound more akin to an operatic performance would come from adding three or four strings to the piano accompaniment.  Nonetheless, the Adler Fellows are renowned throughout opera, and the high-quality performances expected of them are very much present.

“The Adlers: Live at the Drive-In” is produced by San Francisco Opera, directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and plays at Marin Center, San Rafael, California, with one remaining performance on May 13, 2021.

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

Barber of Seville

Lucas Meachem as Figaro (projected above left, live below left), Philip Skinner as Dr. Bartolo (projected above right, live below right), Daniela Mack as Rosina and Alek Shrader as Lindoro (live below center). Photo by Stefan Cohen.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  With the stage of the grand War Memorial Opera House dark for over a year, the San Francisco Opera fashioned a creative fix – not a permanent solution, but one which offers a measure of the thrilling artistry that only live opera can provide.  In overcoming myriad technical, logistical, marketing, and public health issues, the company has produced a wonderfully charming “Barber of Seville” that will live in our memories. Gioachino Rossini’s 19th century imagination could probably conceive of people driving automobiles, but patrons attending one of his great comedic operas while ensconced in their vehicles would probably be beyond his wildest notions.  

Rossini’s “Barber” ranks as one of the most revered opera buffa in the repertoire.  Full of silly characters and silly situations, it tantalizes the funny bone.  At the same time, it is replete with wonderful music.  This adaptation operates under the pleasant conceit of a day of rehearsals, culminating with an evening performance.  Thus, the artists initially appear in contemporary casual costumery and progress toward 19th century dress as time progresses.  The “Barber” narrative is enhanced by announcements from an unseen stage director, including social distance warnings, as well as live and video back stage antics, which add to the fun.

This production contains an ideal cast with deep San Francisco Opera roots that would be the envy of any opera company.  Lucas Meachem plays the title role, and from the opening familiar-to-all “Largo al factotum,” he demonstrates that he possesses the vocal dexterity and magnetic appeal of a memorable Figaro.  Reprising their casting as the lovers several years ago, Daniela Mack and Alek Schrader perform as Rosina and Lindoro (who is really Count Almaviva).  Notably, the artists are married.  Mack also happens to be several months pregnant.  In a playful acknowledgement and despite Rosina’s being single, her first costume reveals the large bump, though later costumes showed that the pregnancy could easily have been hidden.  The pair are superb together and apart, with the highlight being Mack’s “Una voce poco fa,” which she embraces with a warm coloratura vibrato.

All of the principals, masked for rehearsal. Photo by Stefan Cohen.

A remarkable trio comprises the remaining principals.  Philip Skinner is powerful as Dr. Bartolo, Rosina’s guardian.  The company’s legendary Catherine Cook as the maid Berta and Kenneth Kellogg as Don Basilio are admirable as always, this time in roles with little song time, but the latter does deliver the bass aria “La Calumnia” with flair and conviction.  Apart from great solo numbers, “Barber” possesses ensembles, some with six or seven voices. These rapid fire, high wire vocal explosions are given with great precision and fine humor.  Supporting the singers is Maestro Roderick Cox’s orchestra.  Due to logistical and pandemic conditions, the orchestra is limited to 18 instrumentalists, and it performs out of sight.

Setting aside the beloved opera and sterling performances, the production suffered three possible deficiencies before even getting to the drive-in, in this reviewer’s mind.  The opera is perhaps overly familiar to a frequent opera goer; it is condensed to 90 minutes to meet Covid protocols; and instead of glorious acoustic music, it is piped electronically through FM radio.  Upon arrival at the venue (Marin Center, which is a stellar Frank Lloyd Wright designed multi-purposed civic campus for the county), another possible fault was finding that it was being sung in English.  Much to my surprise, in the overall, those concerns were more than adequately addressed.  Although trimming the opera’s length results in a jumpy and incomplete plot line, the good news for those who know the opera is that it hits all the high spots and eliminates the drag.  And while the acoustics of War Memorial are superior to any vehicle’s sound system, voices in particular come through with sufficient glory to make the listening well worthwhile.   Finally, opera almost always fulfills its intentions best in its original language.  However, the comic material of “Barber” in some ways benefits from being sung in words comprehensible to the listener’s ear, with supertitles in the same language.  So despite my misgivings, and perhaps because of the uniqueness of the experience, I enjoyed this version better than most all I’ve seen.   Concerns satisfied.

Many kudos go to General Director Matthew Shilvock and his team for accomplishing a project with a wide scope of demands that go well beyond those required when operating within one’s own home base.  Stage Director Matthew Ozawa orchestrated his creative directors to assemble a lively milieu for the production.  Masterfully adapting sets originally designed for the cancelled production of “Fidelio”, the stage is comprised of compartmentalized spaces on two levels, flanked by large video screens.  Projection screens often overlay the stage as well.  One positive aspect of this drive-in format is that there is more to look at.  While viewing the live performance gives a broad visual perspective, simultaneously, the screens provide more intimate close-ups.

Daniela Mack as Rosina. Photo by Drew Altizer.

Indoor live performance cannot return to the Bay Area too soon.  The intimacy of the stage; the immediacy of the performers; and the ambiance of the event are irreplaceable.  Yet, this format could have legs, especially for newcomers to the art.  Assessing this experiment on a slightly different set of criteria than used in traditional formats, it is a delightful romp and a magnificent piece of work, worthy of the world-class company that San Francisco Opera is.

“Barber of Seville,” composed by Gioachino Rossini, with Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini, translated to English and adapted by Marcie Stapp, is produced by San Francisco Opera, and plays at Marin Center, San Rafael, California through May 15, 2021.

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