Waffle Opera's double-billing of Bach's Coffee Cantata and Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona on Sunday outstripped even my excited expectations.
First and foremost, I have to commend the director of both works, Sarah Young. A perennial, very scary, and very legitimate concern that haunts opera directors is how to make a da capo aria interesting. Young found her answers time and again in this production and each returning melody yielded a new solution. Another directorial conundrum that she solved was what to do with those long orchestral interludes that Bach loved so much; she staged them. Young used the music to her advantage and furthered the story. Furthermore, she used the space very well; the performers entered and exited from all sides of the audience in both works and the minimal stage contours and set pieces were used very effectively. She also smashed the fourth wall multiple times in the Bach, which was a fabulous way to reel in the audience. Massive props to her for staging baroque works in an original and engaging way.
There were no small parts (or small actors) in this production. Alan Briones consistently stole the show in the roles of "a businessman" and Vespone by totally committing to his characters. His one line in the Bach ("I'm reviewing this on Yelp!") was delivered with conviction, but this man needed no lines (or music) to endear himself to the audience. His acting was more than enough. Michael Desnoyers also shone in his role as Barista/Narrator in the Bach. His impersonation of a Mission barista, from the way he reverentially offered jars of coffee to the other characters to smell to how he tenderly mimed pouring hot water over grounds, was absolutely perfect. (I happen to know he's a coffee snob, so his accuracy comes as no surprise.) His singing was clear, lyrical, and crisp.
Sergey Khalikulov appeared as Elder Schlendrian in The Coffee Cantata (making him Mormon was an excellent touch, and the audience laughed raucously the first time we got a good look at his book, aptly titled The Book of Mormon, by God) and Uberto in La Serva Padrona. He inhabited each character differently, making them distinct from one another. His melismas were not as clean as I wanted and he seemed to run out of steam two-thirds of the way through La Serva Padrona, although he found energy at the very end. However, he has a well-placed baby bass-baritone voice and I think age will fix any of the (slight) criticisms I had.
The ladies outdid the men that afternoon. They were both spot on, with voices to match their characters and character to spare. Angela Jarosz was adorable as Lieschen, and her voice was bright and clean. She flirted unabashedly with the audience, not just as demanded by the direction, but with her vocalism and verve. A sparkling performance. Gabrielle Traub was flawless as Serpina. She made her voice nasal and whiny at the appropriate moments, but still kept beauty in the tone and line. Her acting was strong and believable; I actually found myself liking her early on in the show. It would have been so easy to err on the side of brattiness, but she managed to toe the line.
Last, but most certainly not least, Misha Khalikulov on cello and Ben Malkevitch on "harpsichord" took the place of the orchestra and managed to make an orchestra seem unnecessary. They were wonderful. They balanced very well with the singers. They set excellent tempi and followed unerringly if the singers were faster or slower by even the tiniest bit. And they did it from all the way across the room most of the time. They played beautifully in the "orchestral" interludes. Brilliant musicians.
Overall, this was a fabulous production. Baroque opera is a risky undertaking, but Waffle Opera mitigated the risk simply by putting on a brilliant show. They are a dedicated and incredibly talented group of young artists and I cannot wait to see Die Zauberflote in March and The Threepenny Opera in June.
Find them at waffleopera.com.
Maayan is a Manhattan-based opera singer.