Pocket Opera:  Cenerentola & Agrippina
Dateline:  April 25th and May 2nd, 1999

I can count myself fortunate that I have encountered one of San Francisco's great musical treasures:  Pocket Opera.  This little gem of a company had humble beginnings over 23 years ago.  Donald Pippin is the founder, artistic director, librettist, pianist, and narrator, and I'd be surprised if he didn't make sandwiches for the cast after each show.  This chamber opera company produces a handful of operas each season, many of which aren't viable in large venues and which favor the many gifted talented young local singers who aren't likely to be singing Brünnhilde or Siegfried at the Met.

Pippin carefully translates the libretti into English, ever mindful to retain the wit of the original language.  If that weren't enough, during each performance, Pippin steps forward between scenes to give hysterical and historical context to the story, tossing in some double entendres and slight cynicism worthy of Shaw or Wilde.  Pippin conducts, from the piano, a chamber ensemble dubbed ~ the Pocket Philharmonic ~ which consists of first and second violins, viola, cello, reeds, and wind instruments, occasional brass and percussion usually about eight musicians.  The productions are semi-staged and cleverly costumed, and the rest is wonderful singing and acting from the cast.  So far this season I have seen Verdi's Ernani and Giorno di Regno, and Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment.  Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underwold remains in my series.  My vacation schedule won't permit me to see Maria Stuarda (drat).

The two productions I am commenting on are Rossini's La Cenerentola and Handel's Agrippina.

My April 25th excursion was to the 300-seat Hoffman Theatre in Walnut Creek for Cenerentola.  The cast:

Nancy Emmerich - Clorinda
David N. Gustafson - Prince Ramiro
Margaret Lisi- Cenerentola (Angelina)
Richard Mix - Alidoro
Erin Neff - Tisbe
Robert Presley - Don Magnifico
Michael Taylor - Dandini (and Stage Director)

Note the absence of the chorus, which were sung by the male and female cast members as required.  It is simple but very effective.  The three singers who stood out in the cast were David N. Gustafson, Margaret Lisi, and Erin Neff.  Pocket Opera hasn't had very good luck finding tenors until last year when Gustafson's sang his first season with the company.  What a find!  He has a perfect clear, bright voice for Mozart (Tamino last year) and Rossini.  This was my first opportunity to hear Ms. Lisi sing and she was delightful with the soprano-like top notes.  Had Ms. Lisi not been such a fine singer and actress, Erin Neff may have run away with the production.  She was adorably comic as Tisbe and a lovely warm mezzo voice.  Michael Taylor did an excellent job singing Dandini; however his masterstroke was the stage direction.  The chorus were deftly choreographed to accentuate the music.  I have to add that each of the singers had superb diction, which is so important in an English translation.

May 2nd was Pocket Opera's concert version of Handel's Agrippina.  The program was presented in the jewel-box Florence Gould Theatre in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.  As an extra, added bonus, the concert ticket permits admission to the Galleries of the Museum.  I had been to a previous performance and missed a tour of the Galleries so I made certain to get there early.  Luckily I had just enough time to see the special exhibit of art and artifacts from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  It was a real treat because in my two visits to London, I have yet to visit that museum.  The choicest pieces were hauled over:  magnificent highly decorative furniture, objects 'd art, textiles, every type of porcelain dish or serve wear, gilded lion statues.  The exhibit was a treasure trove of royal household knick-knacks, doo-hickeys and thing-a-ma-bobs.

Agrippina, the cast:

Ottone - Lisa van der Ploeg
Agrippina - Karen Anderson
Poppea - Svetlana Nikitenko
Claudio- Maris Vipulis
Lesbo - Ethan Smith
Nero - Elspeth Franks

In this work the recitatives were excised and replaced by Pippin's witty look at Roman Rule during the days of Nero, in other words, Royal Roulette.  I think I'm grateful to Pippin for yanking the recits, no telling how long the program would have been with them intact.  However, I became quite annoyed that the audience insisted on applauding after each and every aria.  This became so tedious, but it's hard to fault an audience who may not have been familiar with recital or oratorio etiquette.

Among my favorites in the cast was Maris Vipulis.  This young bass is a great singer who has worked extensively with Opera San José among other companies in the San Francisco area.  I'm told he passed on an Adler Fellowship to enter the Lyric Opera Center in Chicago, so those people who reside in the windy city should be on the lookout for Mr. Vipulis.  This was Lisa van der Ploeg's first role with Pocket Opera.  Again, Pocket Opera has another mezzo with a plush warm voice, gorgeous diction, as an extremely pregnant Ottone.  Bass-Baritone Ethan Smith, while having a small role, sang very well.  His forte is comic roles and I admired him as Papageno in last year's Magic Flute.  Karen Anderson distinguished herself with lead roles with Festival Opera in recent seasons as Tosca and Suor Angelica, gave a marvelously dramatic interpretation of Agrippina.  Great art and great music made for a wonderful Sunday in the Park with Donald.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do:
Make Caesar Salad for 4 to 6 people.

  • 2 heads Romaine lettuce, carefully washed, dried, and chilled

  • 2 cups plain bread toasted
  • 1 clove mashed garlic
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin or regular olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt
Mash garlic with salt and dribble in the olive oil.  Heat slightly in a medium sized fry pan and add the croutons tossing to mix well.  Heat for a minute or two and set aside.  You can always take the easy route and use Pepperidge Farm Garlic Croutons to save time ~ they're quite tasty.

  • 2 eggs boiled one minute (if uncooked eggs frighten you, use an equivalent amount of Egg Beaters)
  • Juice of one large lemon
  • 2 tsp Coleman's Dry Mustard
  • 3/4 cup olive oil ( I use regular, extra virgin is a bit too strong to use for this recipe)
  • 2 Tbsp. white wine Worcestershire Sauce green lable (again, the regular is too strong for my taste)
  • 1-2 cloves mashed garlic (depends on your tolerance for garlic)
  • 1 can of anchovy filets, drained
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan Cheese (fresh, I said! NO GREEN CAN STUFF)
  • Fresh cracked pepper to taste
In a large wooden bowl, mash the garlic and anchovy filets.  Blend in the lemon, mustard, Worcestershire and eggs until well mixed.  Reserve 4 Tbsp of the olive oil and slowly begin to drizzle in the oil blending with a wisk.  The idea is to create an nice smooth emulsion.
Toss the lettuce leaves with the olive oil to coat.  Then toss with the dressing.**  Just before serving add croutons and give it a few grindings of fresh cracked pepper and the parmesan cheese.  Serve on chilled plates.  Avoid eating this on the Ides of March, and always remember what Antony said when Cleopatra tried to get away. . . "Julius, seize her!"

** The Web Boffin also insists on whole anchovies atop the salad, or it ain't Caesar!    &:-)

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