Makes its World Premiered at Opera San José

By Iride Aparicio

Photos by Pat Kirk

SAN JOSÉ, CA February 27th,  was not an ordinary opening night for Opera San José. Its new General Director LARRY HANCOCK, started his first Season in style with the World’s Premiere of  “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” an opera with music by MARK LANZ WEISER and libretto by ROGER BRUNYATE, based on the E.M. FOSTER novel of the same name, that had been previously selected by the late Founder and General Director of OSJ, IRENE DALIS.

Inside the California Theatre on that night one could sense the eager expectation from the audience. If one listened carefully, even overhear  conversations uttered in hushed tones of voice. The audience was excited about the new work, some wondering why the opera’s Genre had been described as  “a Comedy with a tragic ending

At the sound of an oboe, the lights dimmed, the conversations stopped, the curtain opened, and the audience found itself looking at a drop curtain, imitating a sheet of parchment with a map of Monteriano, a ficticious Italian region, that simulated being traced with black ink.  the Neo-Romantic music of the overture  started playing and when the drop lifted, vicariously, we were there, staring at the Lobby of the The Stella d’Italia hotel.

English gentleman Philip Herriton (KIRK DOUGHERTY) arrives at the lobby with his luggage. He came to Italy looking for his widow sister- in- law, Lilia (ISABELLA IVY). She had fallen in love with Gino Carella (MATTHEW HANSCOM) a twenty-years old Italian, and wanted to marry him. Herriton came from England to admonish her and convince her  not to marry Gino. At the lobby, he meets Caroline Abbott, (CHRISTIE CONOVER)  Lilia’s friend and traveling companion, who gives Herriton a background on Gino. He is the son of a dentist, and that he is veru poor.
                         .Herriton (DOUGHERTY) and Lilia (IVY)
                                  Herriton (DOUGHERTY) and Lilia (IVY)

Caroline's information convinces Philip that Gino wants to marry the rich aristocratic Lilia because of her money. Philip meets Gino at Lilia’s room and is about they talk with him when Lilia tells him that Gino and her are already married. Frustated, Philip takes Miss Abby with him, and returns to England.

The opera does not give the audience the opportunity to see Gino and Lilia living together as a family, when we see Gino again, many months later, we learn that Lilia had died at childbirth. Philip returns to Italy with his sister Harriet. (LISA CHAVEZ), a frustatred woman who, in a series of short scenes, shows the audience her contempt for Italy, complaining about everything Italian, including the hot weather. This time the purpose of their trip is to convince Gino to give them Lilia’s baby, so they could raise him better in England with them. Miss Abbey, has also retuned to Italy, and she also wants to adopt the child.

The next scenes show us Gino’s warmth towards his child. The altar he keeps in his house for Lilia, with her framed photograph adorned with flowers. We attend an opera, in which the “Opera Singer” (JENNIE LITSER) sings a masterful aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, and, in another scene, her dog (Frances Baggott) howls in perfect pitch with the music. We visit the Rock, the romantic Italian place bathed by the glowing sun, where Gino declared his love to Lilia, and we see Philip observing the behavior of Gino and his friends: their comradeship, their loud laughter. the easiness with which all express their feelings. Italian culture is so different from his culture, the English are taught  to keep all their emotions under control. His observations force Philip to accept a self revelation. Something has to change. The ending of the opera, however, is completely  unexpected by the audience.

Padrona, the innkeeper, Harriet Herriton, “The Opera singer”
And Philip Herriton in “Where the Angels Fear to Tread”

In its presentation and sound, this opera is masterful. Its music (WEISER), if not memorable, is pleasant and well orchestrated. Like a traditional opera, this work has Arias, Recitatives, different harmonious Ensembles, and Leit Motivs, including one that identifies the English culture and another one that identifies the Italian culture. On opening night, the voices of all the singers showed the quality of their tone. Their quartets and duets blended well. Under the baton of Opera San José Music Director and Principal Conductor JOSEPH MARCHESO each voice could be heard. In their interpretation of the music, his orchestra mastered all the nuances of the difficult score.

On her return to Opera San José, LILLIAN GROAG who stage directed the premiere, trained all the singers to represent their characters with realism.  Some of the best performances on that night were given by LISA CHAVES as the bitchy Henrietta, a difficult  role for singing and for the acting it requires; CHAVES managed both parts of her role well including the comedy. Wonderful acting and singing was also given by CHRISTIE CONOVER as Caroline Abbot. Her timbre of voice in one of her arias sounded so beautiful, that the performance was interrupted, momentarily,  by applause.

The contrast between the behaviors of DOUGLAS as Philip Herriton, the cold English Gentleman, and HANSCOM as Gino, the ebullient Italian, was palpable in the production. we could feel Gino's warmth in his smiles and sense Herriton's coldness in his manners. Here we should add that HANSCOM's melo dramatic performance at the end, was a show stopper. he represented it with such realism Tenor MATTHEW HANSCOM (left)  as Gino sits by the basket which served as his baby’s cradle._ that it hushed the audience. Not a single sound could be heard inside the theatre. His intense pain, was felt by everyone inside their hearts. 

Tenor MATTHEW HANSCOM (left)  as Gino sits by the basket that served as the cradle of his baby._

Dramatically, the opera ended with this scene. The impact it had on the audience, was so strong, that it made the action that followed it seem unimportant.

In its technical part, the opera is visual. ELIZABETH POINDEXTER created colorful costumes and  set Designer MICHAEL GANIO, managed to convey realistically in his design the different italian localities: the elegance of  the hotel and its rooms, the inside of the church with its painted frescos, and the poetry of the Italian starry sky.

As an opera, however, the only missing element in “Where Angels Fear to Tread” is the passionate love which is at the core of every great opera.  Lilia and Gino may have experienced that love, but it is not shown to the audience in the opera. The other great love experienced by Caroline and Philip, is never expressed in words and, sadly, is one sided.

E.M. FOSTER wrote in his novel:  “The English have an underdeveloped heart that can be liberated through encounters with sensuality” but sensuality was something that neither Caroline nor Philip allowed themselves to encounter. But there is hope of a change for this man. Philip Herrinton promises to return to Monteriano.

"Where Angels Fear To Tread" will be Performed in English, with English subtitles, at the California Theatre, February 12, 15, 20 and 22. For tickets call 408-437-4450 or go to operasj.org