The opening performance Friday of Fresno Grand Opera’s “La Rondine” was a significant milestone for the company. Why? Not for the title or the singing (which was first-rate by the amiable and impassioned Rebecca Davis and Chad A. Johnson in the leading roles) — but for the venue. “La Rondine” marks the first time Fresno Grand Opera has presented a fully staged production in the 750-seat Shaghoian Hall. That’s a much smaller space than the much larger Saroyan Theatre, where the company has performed for more than a decade.
So it was with anticipation — and some trepidation — that I attended the performance. The beautiful new hall, acclaimed for its acoustics, promises a chance for a warm and intimate experience well suited to this tender, smaller-scale gem by Giocomo Puccini. But it also poses a challenge in terms of producing a fully staged work. With a much smaller stage than the Saroyan, no orchestra pit and no way of flying in scenery, my gut feeling was it would be harder to put a sense of “Grand” in a Fresno Grand Opera production there.
My verdict? Mostly positive. This “La Rondine,” which closes Sunday with a matinee performance, has some wonderful musical and dramatic moments. Veteran artistic director Joseph Bascetta is a consummate pro, and his concept for the production and his meticulous yet fluid staging are inspired (marred only by some lackluster dancing by the chorus). And the Italian-born conductor Valerio Galli, in his American debut, offered a clean, precise and even jaunty interpretation of the score that still offered a swell of romanticism. But the scenic and lighting design — and the balance between orchestra and singers on opening night — left a little to be desired. I think the company has some room for improvement when it comes to using this space to present the top-notch regional opera productions its loyal audiences have come to expect.
Here’s a rundown of my impressions of opening night:
Use of the space: How does one fit a 28-piece orchestra — plus a full production – on the relatively small Shaghoian stage? Rather ingeniously, it turns out. The orchestra is compactly tucked into slightly pie-shaped slice of stage-left. To the orchestra’s right — from the audience point of view, the left-hand side — the three-quarters or so of the stage left over is devoted to the simple set.
Music: The orchestra sounded great, but it overpowered some of the production’s singers. Davis (who plays the lower-born courtesan, Magda) and Johnson (Ruggero, the naive young gentleman from a higher-born family who falls so passionately in love with her) had no problem projecting above the musicians. The same goes for Katie Dixon (the maid Lisette) and Igor Vieira (Rambaldo, Magda’s jealous protector). But other singers didn’t fare as well, particularly Chad Berlinghieri as the poet Prunier, along with some of the smaller roles. Having the orchestra on stage instead of in a pit pumps up the volume that much more. I don’t know what other configuration could be used, however. Would some form of sound screen, normally used for percussion and electric instruments, be useful?
Performances: Davis and Johnson have nice chemistry together on stage, and as they work their way through the first giddy moments of love to its gnashing consequences, both capture the emotional trajectories of their characters with aplomb. Davis’ strong soprano voice came across particularly well in this hall, and Johnson’s tenor laments were affecting. My favorite acting performance of the night: Dixon’s sassy Lisette. Also in fine voice, she minced and fretted to often hilarious results. Vieira, another strong singer, was a first-rate Ramboldo, especially when the character gets truly ticked off at Magda. I just didn’t warm to Berlinghieri’s’ voice or acting, however. Besides straining to be heard over the orchestra at times, his comic timing and romantic moves seemed uninspired. When it came to supporting characters, the trio of Melissa Wolfmann, Valerie Salcedo and Bryn Riley all had commanding stage presences and some beautiful vocal moments.
Chorus: I liked much of the work of the Fresno Grand Opera chorus, such as in the second act, when a group of students accost Magda, who has disguised herself for a great adventure. (You have to suspend disbelief, of course; it’s opera, after all.) But when some of the chorus members had to dance the waltz in the second act, the performance faltered. Two of the men dancers were stiff and unconfident in their moves, with one not even leading his partner on the correct beat. What should have been an exhilarating, confident bit of choreography — the kind that would make audience members want to sweep onto stage and dance themselves — turned into something more like an endurance test.
Scenic design: Luis Del Arroz’s concept consists of six three-dimensional Doric-style columns that are moved to different positions for each of the three acts. Four two-dimensional columns in fixed positions stand behind. The backdrop is formed by a large white scrim that is lighted different colors. Furniture pieces and greenery, also changed for each act, complete the look. The design works adequately, but there’s a high-school-prom-photo-backdrop sensibility at work here. And in the third act, I wanted more of a specific sense of the French Riviera rather than by what now seemed generic columns. The scenic design said “concert” to me more than full opera. It doesn’t help that the audience is close enough to see the wrinkles in the white backdrop, something we probably wouldn’t see at the Saroyan.
Lighting design: The Shaghoian doesn’t have the lighting capabilities of the Saroyan, obviously. And it showed in this production, particularly in the darker and more tender scenes. The lack of follow spotlights meant we lost the faces of the principal singers in key, dusky moments.
The seating: Other than the unfortunate moment when a late-arriving couple tromped through Row L smack in the middle of Magda’s famed aria ”Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” (beautifully sung by Davis) — how could the ushers have let this happen? — I can’t say enough about the intimacy of the venue. Even 12 or so rows back, I felt as if I were in Magda’s drawing room, part of the party, in the first act. And when Magda and Ruggero erupt in their intense emotional exchange in the third, I could almost feel the waves of tension. I walked out afterward immersed in Puccini’s fiery romantic vision. And I’m definitely curious to see what Fresno Grand Opera has in store for “Candide,” which will be performed at the Shaghoian May 3 and 5.