Los Angeles Opera Preview: VIVA LA MAMMA! (Pacific Opera Project at the Ebell Club of Highland Park)

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by Frank Arthur on November 3, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


Bringing opera to a wider audience is the noble goal of many a musical entrepreneur, but few succeed as well as Josh Shaw (stage direction and production design) and Stephen Karr (music director and conductor), founders of Pacific Opera Project (POP). Major opera companies should take note of the upstart company’s edgy productions, which explode popular perceptions of what opera is and how it should be performed. POP takes this typically elite art form and strips it down to its barest essentials: stunning music and simple, enjoyable stories. In addition, the close proximity to the productions makes for a completely different viewing experience, reminding audiences that opera singers are as much actors as musicians. I love how they present fun and exciting operas with a modern twist.

Now Shaw and Karr team up again for the company’s eighteenth production since its inception in the summer of 2011. Gaetano Donizetti’s two-act farce Viva la mamma! Performed with a small orchestra and projected English supertitles, this will be the seventh POP-Up production at the Ebell Club of Highland Park, offering table seating with food and wine in a party-like atmosphere for a ridiculously low price. You can even skip the snacks and your seats are a mere twenty bucks!

unnamed1-500x590The narrative runs parallel to POP’s own experiences as it focuses on a regional opera troupe trying to produce a new opera despite many unexpected obstacles. The prima donna refuses to rehearse and the lead tenor can’t remember his music. After many arguments, tantrums, and shouting matches several singers threaten to walk out. The chaos increases when the seconda donna’s mother, Mamma Agatha (a baritone role), arrives on the scene and demands a solo for her daughter, who is less than qualified. When the lead tenor refuses to go on he is replaced by the prima donna’s husband. Despite the best efforts of the composer, librettist, and impresario, the show eventually collapses. Facing certain financial ruin and an artistic failure, the entire company decides to skip town under cover of darkness before opening night. As one of the characters says just before the end, “It’s not an original idea, but a good one nonetheless. Run!”

The score is filled with wonderful music, unmistakably Donizettian, including multiple full-cast ensembles and showpiece arias for nearly every character. POP will use a patchwork version of the opera with material from the original one-act version and from subsequent revisions by Donizetti. The opera will be presented with recitative, not spoken dialogue, and will be sung in Italian with supertitles loosely translated by Mr. Shaw, in typical POP fashion.

The opera will be accompanied by a small orchestra and harpsichord arranged by Mr. Karr. Originally set in 1780’s Italy, the production will be updated to Los Angeles before smart phones and internet searches, a time when letters were still handwritten and delivered…the 1980s. Think of this fictional company as the LA Opera that didn’t make it.

Viva postcard for web

Viva la mamma!, also known as Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (Conventions and Inconveniences of the Stage), was written by Gaetano Donizetti in the early 1800’s. The librettist Domenico Gilardoni adapted the narrative from two plays by Antonio Simone Sografi, Le convenienze teatrali (1794) and Le inconvenienze teatrali (1800). Viva la mamma! premiered as a one-act at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples on November 21, 1827. Donizetti added new material and made revisions and it opened as a two-act piece at the Teatro alla Cannobiana in b9183ca2-5aaf-4733-aac5-18e8e4a069c2Milan on April 20, 1831. “Convenienze” refers to Italian opera rules established in the 19th century regarding the ranking of singers based on talent (primo, secondo, comprimario) and the amount of stage time they should expect to receive.

This production features many of POP’s favorite artists from the past few seasons. Katherine Giaquinto (previously Musetta, Fiordiligi, Susanna) sings the prima donna, Daria Garbinati. Scott Levine (previously Schaunard, Ko-ko, Leporello) sings the disgruntled conductor Biscroma Strappaviscere. Ryan Thorn (whose last performance as a baritone in a dress was as Giove in POP’s La Calisto), stars as the nominal Mamma Agatha. Amy Lawrence (previously Frasquita) plays his daughter, the seconda donna, Luiga Castragati.  Phil Meyer (Sweeney Todd, Pooh-bah, Pistola) plays the Impresario of the opera troupe and Kyle Patterson (Bardolfo, Ferrando, Nanki-poo) sings the leading Tenor as well as the Inspector. Matthew Ian Welch (The Mikado) returns as Cesare Salzapariglia, the librettist. Carl King (Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera) makes his POP debut as the diva’s doting husband Procolo. Yilin Hsu Wendtlandt sings Pippetto.

POP Logo 2014 large

photo courtesy of POP

Viva la mamma! (Donizetti)
Pacific Opera Project
Thursday, November 12 and 19, 2015 at 8
Friday, November 13, 2015 at 8
Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 2 and 8
Tuesday, November 17, 2015 at 8
Ebell Club of Highland Park, 131 S. Ave 57
for tickets, call 323.739.6122 or visit POP

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