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BWW Review: Pacific Opera Project's DON PROCOPIO at Heritage Square

An Early Bizet Opera Staged Outdoors

BWW Review: Pacific Opera Project's DON PROCOPIO at Heritage Square On June 4, 2021, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Georges Bizet's early opera Don Procopio to a sold out audience on The Heritage Square Museum grounds, an outdoor venue in Los Angeles. Having won the Prix de Rome in 1857 and traveled there, Bizet found inspiration at one of that city's second-hand bookstores. He discovered a piece by Carlo Cambiaggio (1798-1880) that he considered "an Italian farce in the manner of Don Pasquale." It became Bizet's Italian opera buffa, Don Procopio. Originally written in two acts, because of COVID, POP presented it in one unbroken act.

The setting was the manor house of the Ostrich Farm of Don Andronico (Scott Levin). The show opened with a comic Ostrich Ballet. The ostrich's long neck and small head were headdresses for the "ostriches" who wore Maggie Green's knee-length black and white "feathers." Other costumes were colorful turn-of-the-20th century garb. Because the opera was played out of doors, the singers as well as the orchestra were miked and Veronica Mullins sound design allowed the artists' music to be heard at a comfortable decibel level throughout the venue.

After the ballet, Euphemia and Andronico bicker over Andronico's choice of the miserly Don Procopio as a husband for Bettina. Ernesto, Bettina's brother, arrives home from long travels and hears that his sister is to be married to a man she does not love. Bettina loves Odoardo. Ernesto, Odoardo, and Bettina, knowing that Procopio really wants Bettina's money, devise a plan to stop the old man. Stage director Josh Shaw brought this hundred year old show to life with simple dances choreographed to Bizet's rhythmic music.

Ben Lowe was a commanding Don Procopio who dominated the stage visually and vocally. A baritone singing a bass role, it will be interesting to see how his voice develops. Wearing a planter's hat, Scott Levin turned in his usual tour-de-force as Andronico. Rachel Policar played Bettina as an ingenue and she sang Bizet's version of Italian/French 19th century ornate coloratura with careless abandon. As Odoardo, Jon Lee Keenan sang with clear, crystalline high tenor tones and his serenade, "Sulle piume dell'amore," ("On the Feathers of Love") accompanied by plucked strings, was a thorough delight. Armando Contreras was an effective Ernesto, Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez a comedic Euphemia, and Matt Welch an amusing Pasquino.

There was a long time between Don Procopio (1859) and Carmen (1875), but Bizet already had singable tunes to offer. Since Procopio was never staged in his lifetime, he recycled several melodies. A chorus became part of La Jolie Fille de Perth (The Beautiful Girl of Perth) and another song became part of Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearlfishers). The Act I March in Procopio however, was hijacked from the finale of the Symphony in C which he had written four years earlier.

Congratulations to Josh Shaw and all the members of Pacific Opera Project for having kept the company alive and kicking through a year and a half of pandemic. They have kept the opera audience fed with streamed performances, drive-in opera, and out-door opera as soon as it was possible. On August 27, 2021, POP will present Rossini's La Cenerentola ("Cinderella") at the outdoor Ford Theater in Los Angeles. I hope it will be sold out just as Don Procopio was on June 4th.

Photo by Martha Benedict for Pacific Opera Project.

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