By Ted AYALA
Chamber Opera Players of Los Angeles – COPOLA – like Pacific Opera Project and WildUp among other local emerging classical music organizations before it, seems to have taken sage pugilistic wisdom to heart: float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Short on resources but long on ambition and savvy, the COPOLA is the nimble welterweight dancing circles around the heavyweight ensembles with hallowed names and storied traditions. Their double-bill of George N. Gianopulos’ “The Last Silent Voice” and Ned Rorem’s “Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters,” performed last weekend at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Glendale, was a striking case in point.
While major opera houses are slumping on the ropes content to rehash the same repertoire, groups like COPOLA take the bold risks, punching above their weight. That their double-bill consisted of music by living composers speaks for itself.
Commissioned by COPOLA and lasting a mere 15 minutes, Gianopulos’ “The Last Silent Voice” is a tightly wound chromatic ball of tension, adroitly navigating an idiom lying between Scriabin and Sondheim, but wholly the composer’s own. Gianopulos’ melodic fluency is a natural fit for the voice, while his skillful grasp of drama belie the fact that this is the composer’s operatic debut. Only Monique Boudreau’s gauche, opaque libretto – its overwrought prosody striking an unflattering contrast with the lithe elegance of Gianopulos’ music – proved to be the sole misstep in the endeavor.
Ned Rorem’s “Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters,” a kooky murder mystery set in a nursery, was a little over twice the length of the Gianopulos opera. The nonagenarian composer has long been considered one of the most distinguished living composers of art song, but this opera finds him equally adept on the stage as he is at the recital hall.
Soprano Ariel Pisturino and baritone E. Scott Levin – co-founders of COPOLA and stalwarts of the local opera scene – starred in the Gianopulos opera. In the Rorem they were joined by tenor John Keenan, soprano Christa Stevens, and mezzo-soprano Jessica Mamey. The ensemble was tight, unified. Levin’s resonant baritone was handsomely spotlighted in the Gianopulos opera, its density of tone providing the ideal foil to Pisturino’s radiant, opulent voice. Keenan, as ever, was liquid in his delivery, pure in tone.
Fellow Pacific Opera Project alumnus Josh Shaw directed, making imaginative use of the limited space available, and in the Rorem mining the mordant humor that has become his trademark. Stephen Karr provided the flexible and colorful piano accompaniment.
Chamber Opera Players have adopted the acronym COPOLA for themselves, perhaps in the hopes that a little Hollywood magic rubs off on them. With their latest production, they certainly have shown themselves to be more than worthy of a Tinseltown-style happy ending.