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A scene from <em>Bonjour M. Gauguin</em> [Photo by Alessandra Mello courtesy of West Edge Opera]
11 Apr 2013

Bonjour M. Gauguin in Berkeley

Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.

Bonjour M. Gauguin in Berkeley

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: A scene from Bonjour M. Gauguin

Photos by Alessandra Mello courtesy of West Edge Opera


It was the reprise of an opera by an enterprising young Italian composer, Fabrizio Carlone (b. 1970) who promoted its premiere in Venice in 2005 that included the manufacture of a CD and DVD. No doubt short on cash West Edge Opera is long on creativity, the least of which was discovering this already far-away produced opera, thus saving the considerable costs of a first performance while offering the Bay Area the excitement of operatic discovery.

It was a pleasurable evening of something new, not just another Magic Flute, and we discovered more than a new opera — we were reminded of the French painter Paul Gauguin with more information than most of us ever knew.

And once again we witnessed a new generation, that of this young Italian composer, chanting its mantra of revolution and finding a new victim/hero to sing about.

Gauguin2.gifAnders Froehlich as Gauguin, Shawnette Sulker as his inner voice

We learned that messieur Gauguin was not a very nice man who died enriched (finally) by his artistic and moral sweat — current sentiment does not seem to concern itself with condemning dishonorable behavior nor honoring penniless death. It was a sequential, exhaustive (about two hours) account of his life in snippets of his own and his contemporary’s words. An unusual libretto that was more a lecture about Gauguin and his art than a dramatic action.

It was in fact absolutely flat dramatically, the French language, by nature little inflected was in perfect accord with Mr. Carlone’s music that percolated underneath achieving quiet, never overly intense musical climaxes. And these emotional climaxes, of which there were a considerable number, were intellectual rather than visceral insuring an evenly illuminated two-hour musical and histrionic landscape.

The actions of geographic change were narrated. Gauguin’s reflections and his contemporaries reactions were recited. This prompted West Edge producers to embellish the lengthy text with abstract dance movement except when specific action was mimed in overt description. The staging was entrusted to Bay Area choreographer Yannis Adoniou who with his dance group Kunst-Stoff, a company of five dancers, energetically executed complex, unceasing movement. The odd number of dancers was evened to six (three male/female couples) when it was joined by Gauguin himself, dancer Anders Froehlich.

M. Froehlich is also an accomplished singer, a fine light baritone who achieved with apparent ease the refined lyricism required by the composer. If without the roughness and rudeness of the described Gauguin this singer fulfilled to near perfection the intellectual and conceptual elegance of the score and this production.

Composer Carlone’s Gauguin was complemented by an inner voice, the exotically costumed soprano Shawnette Sulker who is endowed with a rich voice that she used securely to fulfill the extensive and challenging coloratura requirements of the role. When joined by Gauguin and the three narrators, Keith Perry, Paul Murray and Nicole Takesono, Mlle. Sulker provided the brilliant upper edge to finely wrought five-voice ensembles that were among the musical highlights of the evening.

There were some staging resolutions that defied comprehension, like the bare innerspring mattress that was thrown about the stage nearly the entire evening. Had it related to the bed on which the artist Gauguin laid his naked Tahitian girl in Spirit of the Dead Watching we might have felt some visual structure to the staging of the opera.

Gauguin3.gifKeith Perry, Paul Murray and Nicole Takesono as Narrators, Anders Froehlich as Gauguin, Shawnette Sulker as his inner voice, and dancers

The action of Gauguin painting his Tahitian masterpiece Spirit of the Dead Watching occurred near the end of the opera, and was the biggest moment of the opera. It was mimed by Gauguin and described by Gauguin as well, and illustrated by photographic images projected on the large screen that dominated stage right. This splendid scene was of unusual intensity that even brought to mind Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini casting his statue of Perseus — a David and Goliath comparison, nonetheless germane.

This large screen however was unceasing illuminated throughout the evening by images of paintings that most often were by Gauguin, but often times were by other artists, rarely identified, prompting personal mental scurrying to identify the images and reconcile them to the narration. As well the English translation of the sung French was projected on this screen. Watching this screen and frantic thinking came into direct conflict with participating in the performance.

Conductor Mary Chun and the San Francisco Sound Group Orchestra were in the pit. Mme. Chun oversaw the realization of composer Carlone’s score with authority, precision and sensitivity. She created a musical warmth that encouraged the exceptional level of lyricism achieved by the singers, all in recognition of composer Carlone’s lyric gifts (he is Italian, so supposedly they come naturally).

The San Francisco Sound Group was comprised of nine players entrusted with illuminating composer Carlone’s pallet of, therefore, nine colors. A limited pallet for two hours of music. Composer Carlone’s pedigree is impeccable, including the Ferienkurs für Neue Musik in Darmstadt and the Académie d’été of Ircam in Paris. Thus much current European compositional technology is present in his basically neo-impressionist style. There was a plethora of textures, shapes and rhythms if not volume.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production:

Gauguin: Anders Froehlich; Inner Voice: Shawnette Sulker; Clovis Gauguin: Schuler Wijsen; Narrator #1: Keith Perry; Narrator #2: Paul Murray; Narrator #3: Nicole Takesono; Dancers: Yannis Adoniou, Jerremy Bannon-Neche, Lindsey Renee Derry, Katie Gaydos, Kate Jordan. The sfSoundGroup Orchestra. Conductor: Mary Chun, Stage Director/Choreographer: Yannis Adoniou; Lighting Designer: Lucas Benjaminh Krech; Video Designer: Jeremy Knight; Costume Designer: Shannon Maxham. El Cerrito High School Auditorium, April 6, 2013.

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