Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Young artists and Niederloh excel in quartet of productions by Portland Opera

Angela Niederloh as Julia Child | Photo by Kate Szrom
Experiencing four operas in one evening may seem like a daunting task, but when they are four, relatively short, one-act operas, it can be a delightful undertaking. That’s how I felt when Portland Opera’s presented “An American Quartet,” which consisted of operas by Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Douglas Moore, and Lee Hoiby.

The performances on Tuesday, February 11, took place in the Gregory K. and Mary Chomenko Hinckley Studio Theatre of the Hampton Opera Center. Three of them featured outstanding singers from the young artists program and the fourth starred veteran mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh in Hoiby’s hilarious adaptation of a Julia Child cooking program.

Deft stage directions by Allison Narver, in her Portland Opera debut, made sure that the laughter kept coming and that all of the productions ran smoothly. Set designs by Peter Ksander took advantage of the fact that the Hampton Opera Center originally housed the studios of KPTV. So, mock-TV cameras were used to convey each opera as a live TV show.

Emilie Faiella and Geoffrey Schellenberg in The Telephone |Photo by Kate Szrom/Portland Opera
Menotti’s The Telephone was an amusing take on a young lady’s fixation with her telephone even to the point of ignoring her suitor’s marriage proposal. Soprano Emilie Faiella created the blithefully obsessive gal and baritone Geoffrey Schellenberg made the frustration of her beau totally palpable. It was a relief to hear him resolve the situation with a phone call – from a pay phone, no less!

Ricardo Garcia in A Hand of Bridge | Photo by Kate Szrom
The shortest piece on the program, Barber’s A Hand of Bridge, placed two couples at a card table, and as their game began, a freeze frame allowed each person to reveal some of their innermost thoughts. One of the men (tenor Ricardo Garcia) expressed his love for his mistress rather than his wife (mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman), who was fixated on purchasing a hat trimmed in peacock feathers. The other woman (Faiella) lamented not loving her mother enough. Her husband (Schellenberg) erupted with frustration over his dull life, and proclaimed that if he were rich, he would have twenty naked boys and twenty naked girls to fulfill his sexual desires. The shocking statement caused laughter but also evoked images of Jeffrey Epstein. Enough said.

Camille Sherman, Ricardo Garcia, Geoffrey Schellenberg, and Emilie Faiella in Gallantry | Photo by Kate Szrom
Douglas Moore’s Gallantry poked fun TV soap operas with terrific cheekiness. Faiella wonderfully created the conflicted love-interest of two men while having time to strike beguiling poses for the camera. Schellenberg went over the top as the love-struck, yet conniving surgeon. Garcia played the straight man perfectly. Sherman enticingly shilled for the production’s sponsor, Lochinvar Soap. The ensemble camped it up and made the piece a hoot!

Based on one of Julia Child’s televised cooking lessons for making a chocolate cake, Lee Hoiby’s Bon App├ętit! rounded out the evening with mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh in the starring role. Niederloh marvelously channeled the essence of Child, used impeccable comic timing and a beguiling smile to deliver the sung monologue while mixing ingredients and downing a glass of wine. One of the best moments came when she placed a big spoon of melted chocolate in her mouth and told us how delicious it was.

From my perch, I could see the assistants who continuously shuffled the food items and various kitchen implements to Niederloh so that she could do everything so seamlessly. They deserved an extra round of kudos.

Nicholas Fox conducted the singers and accompanist Sequoia. Christine A. Richardson’s costumes were spot on and lighting by Carl Faber was splendid. All of the performers were top-notch, and I am looking forward to hearing all of the voices again in the near future.

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