SAN JOSE — Let's hear it. Two cheers for the operatic underdog.
Well, would you believe one cheer?
OK, how about a friendly, supportive wave? A nod?
The rich and famous San Francisco Opera was having its way this weekend with heroic Wagner and lofty Strauss. Meanwhile, San Jose--less than an hour away by car--was putting on an ambitious musical show of its own.
It wasn't just an ordinary garden-variety show. That might have been too easy. Opera San Jose was staging a world premiere.
The house, the Montgomery Theater, is admittedly small. It seats only 500. Intimacy is important.
The vehicle, Henry Mollicone's "Hotel Eden," isn't exactly a masterpiece for which the world had been holding its breath. Still, this was a brave and idealistic endeavor. Crucial attention was being paid.
Opera San Jose has been paying some sort of attention to the lyric muse since 1977. That was when Irene Dalis--long a favored mezzo-soprano at Rudolf Bing's Metropolitan Opera and Kurt Herbert Adler's San Francisco Opera--called it a career and took over the opera workshop at her alma mater, San Jose State University. After modest beginnings, careful expansions and various organizational vicissitudes, the effort has gone beyond academia to become a professional enterprise.
San Jose commissioned its first premiere last year: "West of Washington Square" by Alva Henderson. The remaining works on the current agenda, Bizet's "Pecheurs de Perles" and Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," come closer to gourmet fare than bread and butter.
Still, esoterica is not a way of life here. The season opened last month with "La Traviata." The repertory balance looks healthy.
So does the company. It employs talented young Americans, some of them given resident status. Ensemble values are clearly cultivated. Educational outreach programs benefit performers and audiences alike. Operas at Montgomery are presented in seven-performance clusters. The intentions are obviously noble.
The results, alas, can be disappointing. "Hotel Eden" proved that on Sunday afternoon.
The audience was undeniably happy. The partisans stomped, laughed and clapped on cue like a convention of doting sisters, cousins and aunts.
An ungrateful outsider, however, found less to cheer about. To at least one minority observer, "Hotel Eden" looked sophomoric and sounded soporific.
Ambling along amiably and conservatively, it seemed mildly pleasant. In opera, a little mildly pleasant can go a long, long way.
Judith Fein's libretto explores a cutesy semi-satirical premise. It wants to be wry, ends up being banal.
Three silly pairs of bickering biblical lovers check into the same room at Hotel Eden--first Adam and Eve, then Noah and his frustrated wife, finally Abraham and the startlingly pregnant Sarah. It is as if "The Apple Tree" had met "Plaza Suite."
The quality of the text is telegraphed with the first lines.
\o7 Welcome to the Hotel Eden.
A happy day. Shalom.
Welcome to the Hotel Eden!
You'll feel like you're at home.
Shalom\f7 rhymes with \o7 at home\f7 . Get it? The introduction, by the way, is intoned in close show-biz harmony by a maid-waitress-bellhop trio that masquerades as a Greek chorus.
Mollicone, best known for a cleverly cloying bit of \o7 Gebrauchsmusik\f7 entitled "The Face on the Barroom Floor," is a well-bred eclectic. He can write soggy but simple love melodies. He can interpolate hard-pop, mild-pap and sticky-rock diversions. He can toy with show-biz routines as well as old-fashioned operatic procedures. He scores nicely for a tiny chamber orchestra, deftly for the voice.
He has listened carefully to Menotti, not so carefully to Britten.
Still, he seems chronically timid.
The San Jose production served composer and librettist eagerly. Barbara Day Turner conducted with precision and seeming affection. Daniel Helfgot directed traffic slickly on Ken Holamon's cartoon-Rouault set. Elizabeth Poindexter designed appropriate costumes.
The youthful cast pranced and mugged dutifully. Everyone--well, nearly everyone--sang prettily and/or with gusto, as the moment required.
Dan Montez and Julia Wade portrayed the lyrical Adam and Eve, with Rachel Louis as their inevitable mezzo-soprano \o7 femme-fatale \f7 antagonist. Stephen Guggenheim as Noah took an overflowing bath (wearing long underwear adorned with a strategically painted fig leaf) while Susan Gundunas as Mrs. Noah went disco-dancing with the staff. D'Anna Fortunato as Sarah proved that she knows nothing about birthing babies, in mellifluous company with Ronald Gerard (Abraham) and Kathleen Nitz (Hagar). And so it went.
"Hotel Eden" turned out to be vapid and silly. At least it wasn't pretentious. This time, San Jose gave us little ado about little.
Perhaps next time. . . .