Even on Super Bowl Sunday, with the Queen Mary 2 slipping under the Golden Gate Bridge right next door to the Legion of Honor, Pocket Opera faithful showed up in good numbers in the Florence Gould Theater. The event was auspicious: the opening the 30th season of the tiny company, created and nursed along all these years, since his days as a pianist at the Spaghetti Factory, by the remarkable Donald Pippin.
Even against a tradition of opera administrations not being democratic institutions, various Herr Generaldirektors holding sway over their domain (as Kurt Herbert Adler did over the San Francisco Opera, for 43 years, 28 as general manager), Pippin’s three decades of one-man leadership and responsibility for Pocket’s survival constitute a unique entry in the history of the genre.
There he was on Sunday, as always, with the jaunty beret; his own inimitable translation of the libretto, the shy, hesitating, endearing, wickedly funny delivery; playing the piano, conducting the Pocket Philharmonic (of 11, with a crackerjack first violinist, Kristina Anderson, and fine woodwind players), and informing, illuminating, entertaining.
This being Friedrich von Flotow’s 1847 "Martha" — a one-time warhorse, now a rarity — Pippin took care to explain the historic setting and significance of the story, a German composer’s French opera about early 18th-century England. At the time of Queen Anne, even more than in other periods, Pippin said, "It was an extremely good idea to be born rich ... the alternatives too terrible to contemplate." A couple of hours later, Pippin acknowledged that complications remained unceasing, but he exclaimed: "Good Lord, it’s the fourth act, and the matter will have to be settled soon!"
Of course it was settled, happily, and there is no reason to go deeply into the paper-thin story, but the music is pretty good (not more than that), and then there are the two "big numbers" — "The Last Rose of Summer," and the tenor aria "Ach so fromm ..." ("My eye beheld her, oh so mild and so endearing"). Another hallmark of Pippin’s long reign is the cultivation of young talent, and this "Martha" was clear proof of that. The tenor Brian Thorsett (Lionel) delivered a consistent, unflashy, impressive performance. Even when others jacked up the volume, Thorsett sang quietly and beautifully, as a good lyric tenor should.
The title role (Martha, also known as Lady Harriet) went to Marcelle Dronkers, an excellent singer blessed with a big voice, but not enough performance smarts to adjust her voice to the tiny theater. One of the disadvantages of Pippin doing "everything" is that, seated at the piano, his back is to the singers, so he had no chance to rescue Dronkers from oversinging. She did, needlessly, going shrill at times, and blowing her very last note just because she was aiming for the solar plexus, rather than the ears, the heart ... In this same small venue, not long ago, Dronkers sang a near-perfect Lady Macbeth.
Bass Clifton Romig (Plunkett) got carried away with his big voice, singing louder than necessary and appropriate; but mezzo Julia Ulehla (Nancy) got it exactly right, creating a memorable secondary role. Stage director Dianna Shuster moved the "semi-staged" production along.
Considering Pippin’s ever-so-clever text ("Dukes and barons fawn and flatter; / Princes worship and adore. / I repeat, they little matter, / For I find them all a bore.), it’s a shame not to have supertitles.
Presentedby: Pocket Opera
Where: Florence Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Feb. 24
Tickets: $18 tp $35
Contact: (415) 972-8934 or www.pocketopera.org
Note: Additional performances Feb. 18 at the Napa Valley Opera House and March 11 at Osher-Marin Jewish Community Center