Angela Allen

An American Quartet sold out–and for good reasons. Portland Opera’s seven-performance black-box show, which opened Feb. 9 at Hampton Opera Center and closed Feb. 22, was witty, short, well performed, utterly charming, and for once the spotlight shone on American opera composers. The entire program, sung in English with projected captions, lasted about 95 minutes along with a 15-minute intermission. That’s a long way from a four-hour night with Wagner.

These four one-acts, ranging in length from 10 to 26 minutes, provided a sharply tuned showcase for the up-and-coming Portland Opera Resident Artists, each of whom sang multiple parts.

I’m a big fan of short operas, and to receive a dose of four comic pieces by such serious mid-20th-century composers as Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Douglas Moore and Lee Hoiby was like breathing fresh air. The composers influenced one another (Menotti and Barber were life partners for a long while), and Menotti mentored and championed Hoiby.

Besides, there were perks beyond the music. Hoiby’s hilarious 19-minute Bon Appetit! featuring Angela Niederloh—not a resident artist but a rising Portland mezzo who captured Julia Child as the awkward, endearing, almost inimitable but often imitated American cooking icon—inspired Portland Opera to serve up Papa Haydn bite-sized chocolate cakes as the audience exited. Nice touch even if it wasn’t the same recipe as the one that the busy multi-tasking Niederloh makes on stage. No worries: the evening’s program published Child’s authentic Le Gateau au Chocolat L’Eminence Brune recipe, yet another friendly non-musical touch.

Hoiby’s Bon Appetit! was the last of the four operas presented, and it drew the most laughs and applause. Many of us are familiar with Child’s high lilting voice and comical on-camera moves, such as licking spoons and pinching cakes for doneness (and dropping things, which she failed to do here), and continue to find her loveable. Hoiby captured her, as did Niederloh. Spot-on.

A Midwesterner who became a composition protégé of Menotti’s (Menotti’s The Telephone was the program opener), Hoiby eschewed stylish 20th-century atonal music. Atonal pieces were like “wallpaper,” he said. His tastes could be minimalist, and music, he said, “was a song from the heart,” as this opera proves.

Hoiby’s attraction was to the human voice. He was also an accomplished pianist, and among the four operas, his opera beautifully suited the evening’s piano accompaniment. Bon Appetit! was originally paired in 1987 with The Italian Lesson, starring comedian Jean Stapleton, because Hoiby thought an evening of opera less than an hour would be disappointing. No worries!

Nicholas Fox directed from the corner, pianist Sequoia played tirelessly with his back to the audience, and the rest of the stage was left to the performers. As good as in recitals, which these artists regularly perform for their residencies, the voice and piano made a spare, seamless, understated match.

The stage was used like a TV set, with a rack of costumes wheeled onstage between operas, ancient TV cameras rolling about, and a neon sign for applause. Speaking of applause, stage director Allison Narver deserved praise for unifying these works with the piano, the exacting props (a clunky pink telephone with a very long cord, sweater vests and big-skirted shirt-waisted dresses)–all of which contributed to the mid-century sit-com vibe.

Because the singers (other than Niederloh, who had a huge part in the breathless one-woman Bon Appetit!) each performed several roles, their versatility was apparent. Newcomers soprano Emilie Faiella and tenor Ricardo Garcia made their PO debuts–with Faiella as the phone-obsessed Lucy in Menotti’s 23-minute The Telephone, a mourning Geraldine in Barber’s 10-minute A Hand of Bridge, and Lola, the no-nonsense nurse in Moore’s 26-minute goofy soap-opera-like Gallantry. Garcia sang a philandering (at least in his thoughts) Bill in A Hand of Bridge and a hapless patient in Gallantry. His comic timing and tenor were tightly tuned. He also contributed to some nice ensemble singing in both operas.

Faiella played the bouncy blonde Lucy to the hilt. She is so infatuated with her pink phone that her boyfriend, who wants to propose in person (baritone Geoffrey Schellenberg), resorts to calling her from a phone booth to get her attention. Let us be reminded that phones were already all-consuming face-to-face relationship villains 75 years ago when this opera was written. Schellenberg was radically different in each of his roles. He played a secretly power-hungry bridge player in the brief intriguing inner-life drama, A Hand of Bridge (yes, we are always hiding something at the table) and a sleazy doctor in Gallantry, originally adapted for TV in 1962. I could barely recognize him from one role to the next. And that’s a compliment.

Mezzo Camille Sherman, in a second season as a resident artist, showed stage maturity as well as talent. She was the daffy advertising announcer in Gallantry and played a shopaholic dreamer in A Hand of Bridge. She performed an unsympathetic role as Kate Pinkerton earlier in this season’s Madama Butterfly, and pulled it off; she appears to have the chops to sing and act in numerous directions.

Any criticism? Nope. I love it when Portland Opera takes a chance on shorter, lesser-known operas. I love the smaller-scale shows in the Hampton. Alas, PO is returning to a more traditional repertoire in the fall, but I hope it keeps the intimate operas coming.