Henry Etzkowitz and Chunyan Zhou
Small Stage, Big Story
Far away from live performance for two years, finally we left our house to attend Pocket Opera. Miraculously, it seems that the Covid depression was all gone. We were in a super good mood! Thanks to these artists (singers) for their hard work!
Infectious joy suffused the auditorium as the Pocket Opera players performed the Merry Widow, with Broadway panache. Welcome back to live performance was the happy greeting by the host of the Pocket Opera’s return to the elegant the tromp l’oeil Legion of Honor theater in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor museum. The pocket’s raison d’etre, performance of the English translation of the lesser known works for modest sized casts, was extended for presentation of Franz Lehar’s classic Merry Widow operetta by a mid-sized cast.
The pocket’s mini philharmonia of 10 players was in full sight on stage,behind the performers rather than in a pit in front below and partially out of sight, becoming part of a dynamic stage setting.
Money, love, jealousy and nationalism create a competitive dynamic that drives the Merry Widow. Heart felt national feeling for their petite kingdom that is expressed in the opening scene sets the tone.
A Paris based coterie of Pontevedrans revolve around the two poles of the Kingdom’s Ambassador to France and the widow of the kingdom’s wealthiest inhabitant. Her munificent deposit in a national bank underpins the vaguely Balkan nation’s financial stability, providing the springboard for the operettas plot. It is also the impetus for the songs that develop the dramatic action that leads to resolution of converging personal and national dilemmas.
In the French marital format of a certain class and period, the connubial tie was at minimum a triadic arrangement. Financial gain as well as love provided the motivation for attachment. The ambassador plots to put forward a suitable national candidate for the widow’s favor and fend off foreigners, whose acceptance might result in national financial collapse if the widow’s deposit was transferred out of the country. The actor who played the ambassador, Lee Strawn, impressed us with his natural humor and wit. He vividly portrays a portentous small country ambassador, cautious, lacking in self-confidence but trying to retain his dignity, especially when it comes to his beautiful young wife.
The Ambassador’s wife’s liaison with a young lover provides a balance wheel to the plot as the wife, pledging fealty to her wifely role, sends her lover off to court the widow. Securing a last embrace before their breakup, the lovers retreat behind a garden wall to express their passion. An acolyte is unable to restrain the ambassador from peeking through the key hole in the garden wall door but before he is able to enter, the widow replaces the wife in her lover’s embrace in an act of female solidarity in the face of male suspicion. Count Danilo a former lover, preceding the widow’s marriage re-enters the scene but steps back when it appears that the ambassador’s wife’s lover has gained the widow’s favor.
Jennifer Ashworth plays the widow Anna. Her voice has a husky quality, implying a married woman who is mature, self-confident, charming and exceedingly fascinating. She has a strong aura and performs a rich widow perfectly. On the contrary, Orson Van Gay II (Danilo’s) voice is clean, clear, beautiful and magnetic, with a wide sound range. It’s just perfect for a playboy who tries to avoid the responsibility of marriage and is only concerned with pleasure-seeking. He is impressive in this role as he makes his debut in the Bay Area.
At the same time, Kevin Camille and Ellen (Valencienne) inhabit their characters completely. They have beautiful voices and clear lyrics, expressing the complex feelings between lovers precisely. With the other eleven team members, the five main actors/actresses offered impressive contributions to an evocative musical feast. Congratulations to Michael Mohammed and David Drummond, for their superb production!
The action Moves to Maxim’s, the fabled Parisian restaurant, and reveals a place where fifi, dodo and their demimonde peers Can-Can dance and provide an overtly sexual penumbra to the already intricate couplings. An effervescent aria celebrating women is the high point of the show, with the chorus repeated to audience cheers. A spoiler alert could not likely cover the resolution of the love-money-jealousy plot. Suffice it to say that a standing ovation expressed the audience’s appreciation of a vibrant and glorious performance.
Even though there is little resemblance between the comic machinations of an operetta and the real world, there is a certain resonance in the struggle of fictional petite nation to survive and the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine: a strong attachment to natal culture.
Photos are courtesy of the Pocket Opera
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