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'Sisters' Reborn

An old opera is made new again in the region's newest venue

By Philip Collins

THERE WAS quite a stir Saturday night at UC­Santa Cruz's recently inaugurated Music Center Recital Hall, where a large segment of the region's classical-music cognoscenti turned out for the American premiere of François Devienne's newly restored 1792 comic opera Les Visitandines. It seemed appropriate that a significant bit of musical archaeology was receiving its premiere in the area's newest performance space.

UC­Santa Cruz Professor Sherwood Dudley's reconstruction and editing of the fourth and most notorious opera by French composer Devienne (1759­1803) has been over a decade in the making, and Saturday marked the auspicious fruition of his labors. The opera was such a hit in its day that Devienne expanded the original two acts to three in 1793. The additional music was never published, however, and remained unknown until Dudley found a manuscript copy in Lille, France.

The full house embraced Les Visitandines' rebirth as if it were a long-lost friend, perhaps in part because of Devienne's unabashed use of familiar melodies by his more famous contemporary Mozart. But Les Visitandines has charms of its own, and the student-based troupe performed zealously, and at times with expertise, on its behalf under the stage direction of translator Miriam Ellis and conductor Dudley.

Les Visitandines could be coined a "champagne opera"--it's bubbly and makes listeners giggle. Not unlike a pair of Broadway-musical creators, Devienne and his librettist, Louis-Benoit Picard, sought no greater end than entertainment, and the Dudley/Ellis team's revival exemplifies this strategy in winning fashion.

Devienne's farce about two lads' mischievous escapades inside the convent of Les Visitandines offers lighthearted pokes at the papacy and a series of assorted predicaments too silly to mention. Suffice it to say that Belfort, a recently imprisoned philanderer, and Frontin, his comrade, gain entry to the convent disguised as a nun and priest respectively so that Belfort might extricate his beloved Euphémie--a novice about to take her vows into sisterhood.

In keeping with the genre, a series of absurd misunderstandings and deceptions follow. In addition to such episodes of modest hilarity, however, the opera also presents abundant opportunities for the display of vocal wares, which at least a few cast members put to good advantage.

Soprano Susannah Murray was glowing as Euphémie, imbuing the work's feature arias with a sweetness of tone that encompassed her role's considerable range while also manifesting the character's innocence. Candace Roberts' Sister Bonaventure brought another high point to the show with her natty, animated delivery of the libretto's funniest number--"There's no need to spell it out completely"--a nun's confessional aria alluding to youthful exploits with the opposite sex.

Bradford Shreve's assertive, but short-lived, contribution as the coachman turned out to be one of the evening's only convincing male vocalizations. Although Brian Maples' and Adam Hobbs' performances as Belfort and Frontin were dramatically adequate, their song entries wavered distractingly. As Grégoire, the convent gardener who assists the gents in their connivery, Joshua Bongers brought a lively predisposition to bear, but his incessant inebriation wore out its welcome early, and his vocal projection did not do justice to his dulcet baritone instrument.

The nuns' few choral numbers proved a surprising bonus. Their tightly aligned ensemble blends--buoyed by descriptive phrasing and honed intonation--added fire and vibrancy to the show's vocal agenda.

Although the score itself is less than memorable, and its song forms often predictably formulaic, it is nevertheless serviceable, and even handsomely crafted much of the time. It was easy to accept fleeting quotes from The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro as grist for the mill, and certain instrumental episodes--the overture in particular--provided delightful setups to the ensuing scenes.

The orchestra managed splendidly from the recital hall's pit. Using a minimum of community ringers, Dudley coaxed attractive support from the ensemble, which, if short on luster, provided smoothly joined textures that were thoughtfully balanced and, for the most part, well-tuned.

Ellis' translation of the original French lyrics works wonderfully. Not only is it accountable to style and quite apt for vocalizing, but it captures some of the juiciest comic moments without resorting to the ephemeral gratifications of camp.

The new recital hall, which opened earlier this year but was not officially dedicated until May 22, also contributed its fair share to the evening's success. As witnessed at chamber-music and gamelan concerts, this 396-seat venue--which is malleable to varying acoustic needs--is user-friendly to performers and audience alike. Voices were cradled in an atmosphere of warmth that reinforced tone without muddying diction, and singers of even questionable carrying power--and there were a few--still could be heard over the orchestra.

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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