The Free Times: Two Little Miracles - Opera at USC Succeeds with Short Works by Debussy, Bizet
by David Lowry
Bible stories might or might not be good fodder for opera plots. Opera at USC took a chance by beginning the spring semester with one such one-act chamber opera by Claude Debussy. The evening also included a one-act opera by Georges Bizet.
The problem in presenting biblically based operas is how to embellish the action without being blamed for distorting the Holy Writ. Debussy, at age 22, won the Prix de Rome for his cantata L’Enfant prodigue (“The Prodigal Son”). Musically, the work is a curious piece of assorted styles, some of which foretell the yet-to-come “impressionism” for which he is best known. But the work is very convincing and “sings” really well, even when some of the writing sounds more like César Franck.
Whether this cantata — often staged ever so slightly as an opera — strayed or augmented the bibical story was not clear to the audience Saturday evening, as there were no supertitles to clarify the French-language performance. The performance, however, was rich in timbre, well rehearsed and exhibited the fine vocal work of the two main singers, Cathy Siarris as Lia, the mother, and Khary Wilson as Azaël, the prodigal.
It might seem odd that Georges Bizet — composer of such a masterpiece as Carmen, an opera that was pivotal in opening the opera world to verismo — would write a one-act opera like Le Docteur Miracle (“Dr. Miracle”). Consider that he was 18 years old. And it also won him the Prix de Rome. (What were you doing at 18?)
And then there are the omelets: An opera about making omelets? Serve an omelet to the father of the girl you wish to marry and fake a story about the omelet being poisoned. Then go “save” the father from death on the condition he will let you marry his daughter.
Well, it’s comic opera in the Italian-French tradition. The spoken lines were in English, the sung portions in French with English supertitles, the ending is happy, and a standing-room only audience loved it. The opera requires a vocal quartet and a director that can keep the comedy routines moving. Director David Toulson knew just how to do that, and his responsive quartet of singers kept up the lively pace. How to act and sing at the same time is a requirement in opera studies, and these student singers were fortunate to have good leadership.
Baritone Nicolae Pop was in both works, but with little to sing in the Debussy. He flourished in the Bizet with his fine voice and his portrayal of the stubborn mayor. Evan McCormack, tenor, was the soldier who wanted to marry the mayor’s daughter, but also posed as a stumbling idiot house servant (total slapstick) and as Dr. Miracle, saving the mayor. When singing, he projected a thrilling sound. Sylvia Aponte, soprano, and Ariana Pullano, mezzo-soprano, provided marvelous voices and great interaction. The four made up a gratifying ensemble, and their French flowed like the Seine.
The genius of the evening, however, without whom no one would have succeeded, was pianist Stacey Holliday, playing both scores brilliantly.