Donald Pippin must be a magician. Out of a bare-bones set, an orchestra of nine (including himself at the piano) and a cast of mainly local artists, the diminutive octogenarian’s small opera company, Pocket Opera, presents some of the most enjoyable and vital operatic experiences in the Bay Area.
In addition to Pippin’s knack for casting singers with tremendous verve and appeal, the beret-clad elf intersperses their singing with his own wry spoken commentary.
One of the few artistic directors who freely admits to the inanities of plot and medium, he has built part of his career on his ability to play operatic absurdities for all they’re worth. His signature delivery, complete with ample pauses that add to the charm, is in itself a treasure.
And his inimitable English-language translations of opera libretti, which in comic operas create a comedy all their own, are equally priceless.
A case in point is the opening production of Pocket Opera’s six-opera season, Rossini’s “Cinderella” (“La Cenerentola”). The singers may not have voices of sufficient heft to fill War Memorial Opera House, but in San Francisco’s own musical jewel box of a theater — the intimate Florence Gould at the Legion of Honor — they can be heard with ease.
As Cinderella, the charming mezzo Kindra Scharich has one of the warmest, immediately endearing middle ranges you are likely to encounter. Opposite her, the Prince Ramiro of adorable tenor Jonathan Smucker ingratiates with his youthful vocal freshness and beauty.
The other main singers — mezzo Elana Cowen, soprano Rebecca Krouner, and baritones Lee Strawn, Eugene Walden, and Wayne Wong — boast fine voices and a special flair for character.
Given that Pippin has been presenting concert and staged performances of vocal works in the Bay Area for more than 50 years, he has developed a loyal following that sometimes packs the house.
While you’ll have to journey to Napa on March 7 to catch “Cinderella,” five other operas remain this season. High on my list are two operas by composers dear to Pippin’s heart: “Rinaldo” by Handel and “La Vie Parisienne” by Offenbach. Expect the Offenbach to sparkle.
From a more obscure composer whom Pippin has recently championed, Poland’s Moniuszko, comes the rarely staged “Halka”; Pippin considers it up there with the best.
Rounding out the offerings are Puccini’s too-seldom-performed half-operetta, the marvelous “La Rondine” (“The Swallow”), and Verdi’s beloved and infinitely tuneful “La Traviata.”
If you go
Where: Florence Gould Theater, Palace of the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave., San Francisco
When: March 7 through July 18
Tickets: $20 to $37
Contact: (415) 972-8934, www.pocketopera.org
Note: Performances also are at the Napa Valley Opera House and Julia Morgan Center of the Arts in Berkeley.
San Francisco 2010 season
“Halka” – March 27-28
“La Rondine” – April 24, May 9
“Rinaldo” – May 22
“La Vie Parisienne” – June 12-13
“La Traviata” – July 10-11, July 17