Arts & Events

West Edge Opera at Pacific Pipe: A New Venue & New Operas

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday August 13, 2017 - 06:45:00 PM

After several successful seasons at Oakland’s abandoned train station, West Edge Opera was told by Oakland city officials that in the wake of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, for safety reasons the city could no longer permit public performances at the abandoned train station. So West Edge Opera’s General Director Mark Streshinsky set out in search of another suitable (and cheap) venue where his company could stage their 2017 Festival. What Streshinsky came up with was Pacific Pipe, a former West Oakland warehouse for a steel refurbishing factory. In this vast former industrial space, West Edge Opera is currently presenting three new operas, all rarely seen anywhere. On Sunday, August 6, I attended L’arbore di Diana/The Chastity Tree by Vicente Martin y Soler. A Spanish composer who worked in Vienna as a contemporary of Mozart, Martin y Soler shared with Mozart the services of renowned librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for The Chastity Tree. Later in life, da Ponte considered L’arbore di Diana the best opera libretto he had written, noting that “it was voluptuous without overstepping into lasciviousness.” 

Well, in Mark Streshinsky’s staging L’arbore di Diana definitely overstepped into lasciviousness. The plot revolves around a fruit tree in the garden of the chaste goddess Diana. If Diana’s nymphs are virginal, the tree offers them ripe fruit when they pass under it; but if a nymph has secretly given up her virginity, the tree pelts her with overripe, rotten fruit. Diana is very strict about virginity. That is, until she feels the stirrings of love for the shepherd Endimione. In Streshinsky’s staging, the single set is dominated by a large, metallic tree with several metal ladders leading to its heights. A chorus of green-clad nymphs dances around the tree and clambers up its branches. Three nymphs are singled out for singing roles. They also seem to be so fed up with chastity that they are ready to get it on with any of the three shepherds who hang around. In their amorous pursuits, the three nymphs retreat to a curtained off platform bed at stage right. There they take on all comers, sporting outrageously huge, phosphorescent wigs, one orange, one purple, one pink. 

Musically, Martin y Soler’s opera is similar in style to Mozart’s operas, though lacking Mozart’s magisterial genius for melody. The role of Diana was here beautifully sung by soprano Nikki Einfeld, who has appeared with both San Francisco Opera and Symphony. Einfeld’s aria “I know what I am” was a highlight of this performance. Incidentally, the acoustics at Pacific Pipe are not the very best. Though I’m fluent in Italian, I could barely make out a word or two in any sentence sung. Moreover, the supertitles did not project brightly enough during this afternoon matinee to be easily readable. (I checked with staff who had attended the previous evening’s performance of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, and they noted that the supertitles had been brighter at night than in the day. Ironically, the one reservation I had about West Edge Opera’s abandoned train station as a venue for opera was that the company never seemed to solve the problem of making the supertitles easily readable. Now the same problem crops up at Pacific Pipe.)  

In The Chastity Tree, Cupid is the antagonist of Diana, championing love against Diana’s insistence on chastity. Cupid was gorgeously sung by soprano Christine Brandes, who played the role of the boy Cupid disguised as a girl. This created some gender-bending when Cupid makes a pass at Doristo, who responds to her/his come-ons. Whether Doristo ever discovers that the girl is actually a boy is not clear, though the fact that at one point in their amorous encounter he mounts her/him from behind suggests that, well, maybe he does or maybe he doesn’t care whether it’s a girl or a boy. (Mark Streshinsky mentioned in a pre-opera talk that he emphasized gender-bending in this opera to champion love in all its forms.) In any case, the role of Doristo was robustly sung by German bass-baritone Malte Roesner. His deep, dark voice was powerful, though in the vast interior space of Pacific Pipe I’m not sure that even Roesner’s voice carried sufficiently to make the words clearly audible to audience members seated even halfway towards the rear.  

In the role of the shepherd Endimione, tenor Kyle Stegall was superb. Though Endimione, too, engages in sexual foreplay (and maybe more) with each of the three wig-clad nymphs, he falls in love with Diana herself. This turn of events initially confuses the chaste goddess, but she quickly surrenders to the pangs of love. Incidentally, director Mark Streshinsky missed a great opportunity for comedy when he failed to include a scene of the mythical Chastity Tree pelting rotten fruit at any female who passed under it who was not chaste. Certainly, his staging of The Chastity Tree offered multiple opportunities for such a scene; but, alas, no such scene occurred. In the role of Endimione’s sidekick, the shepherd Silvio, tenor Jacob Thompson was engaging. As for the three wig-clad nymphs, their voices blended beautifully in ensembles, and each singer had a few solo moments. In the role of Clizia, mezzo-soprano Molly Maloney was excellent. As Britomarte, soprano Maya Kheroni was admirable; and as Chloe mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss was delightful.  

Conductor Robert Mollicone led the orchestra in a brisk, fast-moving performance. Sarah Berges served as choreographer, and she provided the chorus of green-clad nymphs with much entertaining movement throughout the opera. Jean-François Revon was Set Designer, Kevin August Landesman was Lighting Designer, and Christine Cook was Costume Designer. L’arbore di Diana/The Chastity Tree continues with performances August 12 and 19 at Pacific Pipe. (West Edge Opera offers a free shuttle to Pacific Pipe from the West Berkeley BART station, as well as back to this Bart station after the show.)