Opera Review: DON PROCOPIO (Pacific Opera Project in L.A.)

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by Tony Frankel on June 10, 2021

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Well, last Sunday night, courtesy of Pacific Opera Project’s presentation of Don Procopio, I had my first foray to a live production since the pandemic put a pause on live performances (and as long as I’m alliterating, we packed a pleasant picnic perfect for piggery). While I had attended shows at drive-ins (please, no more of that … or on that), this was the first where I was surrounded by fellow audience members who removed masks while seated and eating/imbibing.

We were outdoors at Los Angeles’s Heritage Square Museum — a collection of restored buildings from some 100 years ago — with a large weathered church as the platformed stage’s backdrop. Director Josh Shaw’s set was that of an American ostrich farm from some 100 years ago, but it was purposely playfully designed, looking almost as if a Junior High School Drama Department was hired on the fly to turn found materials into scenery and giant ostrich get-ups — with hilarious results on the latter, thanks to Maggie Green, whose costumes may have been occasionally ill-fitting, but they evoked 1913 perfectly — not to mention the River City, Iowa of a community production of The Music Man.

The voices from the ten-member ensemble were glorious, natch’, and the small orchestra playing floor-level with the viewers was led with flair and precision by Charlie Kim (Chris van Tuinen did the smart arrangements). I was simply sedated by the sumptuous setting, Veronica Mullins’ savvy sound, sonorous singers, silly shenanigans, and Shaw’s smart supertitles (“He’s taking him h’ostrich!” indeed).

Since I had never even heard of this opera, I assumed — given that the composer is Carmen‘s Georges Bizet — it was a slight stinker. Well, it’s slight alright, but no stinker. In 1859, the 21-year-old Bizet took a creaky old Italian libretto by Carlo Cambiaggio and created a two-act bel canto opera buffa. He was most likely trying to find his voice via the framework of Italian Opera, looking to Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (1843) for inspiration. The first production took place in Monte Carlo, 1906, in a double program with Pagliacci.

Oh, the plot. Well, that’s far too big of a word for what we witnessed. Bettina (buttery Rachel Policar) loves Odoardo (adorable Jon Lee Keenan) but loathes the fact that her uncle Andronico (E. Scott Levin, who really knows his way around an ostrich egg) has engaged her to marry old miser Don Procopio (Ben Lowe, thankfully underplaying Procopio’s pomposity). Andronico’s wife Eufemia (a scene-stealing Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez) also opposes the union. Bettina and her brother Ernesto (beautifully bari-toned Armando Contreras) hatch an idea to turn off Procopio to marriage. Bettina acts as an overbearing seductress, and Procopio — horrified at the expense involved with his future bride — calls the wedding off, allowing Bettina to marry Odoardo.

And then there’s the four-member chorus (Matt Welch, Rachel Freed, William Grundler, Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt) playing waitresses and gas jockeys, who double as ostriches, even dancing as such. Mr. Shaw was right in making the silly even sillier. You don’t want to take this opera seriously. What you can take seriously is much of the agreeable music; Bizet may have been overly zealous in his youth, but the kid was no slouch. And because the score was pulled off with perfection, the evening was a hit. Now, where are you gonna get voices like this with an Ostrich Ballet and a table for four for half the price of one ticket at that other opera place across town? Sure they’re accessible and affordable, but POP remains the most entertaining opera company around, thanks to Josh Shaw.

photos by Martha Benedict

Don Procopio
Pacific Opera Project
Heritage Square Museum
played June 4-6, 2021
for more, visit POP

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