Twentieth-century fiction continues to provide fertile source material for contemporary opera: “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” which made its world premiere last weekend in a luminous Opera San Jose production, is a splendid example.
Adapted from E.M. Forster’s 1905 novel, composer Mark Lanz Weiser and librettist Roger Brunyate have brought this tragicomic tale of class collision to life as an engaging three-act melodrama. “Angels” begins after the young English widow Lilia Herriton travels to the fictional Italian town of Monteriano. Her upper-crust family is horrified when she marries Gino, the son of an Italian dentist. When she dies in childbirth, the Herritons – represented by Lillia’s brother-in-law Philip, his sister Harriet, and family friend Caroline Abbott – rush to Italy to “rescue” Lilia’s child and bring him back to England.
Weiser and Brunyate completed the opera in the 1990s, and it had a previous student performance in 1999 at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. But Saturday’s opening at the California Theatre, attractively staged by director Lillian Groag and conducted with considerable flair by Joseph Marcheso, marked its official debut, and the OSJ company – which hadn’t produced a world premiere since the 1999-2000 season – did it proud.
Weiser’s score is an enveloping neo-Romantic construction, with lovely orchestral interludes and lyrical solo flights, duets and ensembles. Brunyate’s libretto expresses the opera’s initially comic scenes and the characters’ burgeoning passions. And the opera summons an apt atmosphere of turbulence and regret when the Herritons’ plans go terribly awry.
The opera skimps a bit on one significant episode: a village performance of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which provides one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, barely registered.
Yet Saturday’s opening performance proved beguiling. Marcheso led a dynamic orchestral performance, and Groag’s staging, on Michael Ganio’s sun-dappled Italian set, captured the depth of emotion at the story’s core.
The singers threw themselves into their roles with poise and fervor. As Caroline, soprano Christie Conover was the standout, expressing her character’s reticence and yearning with radiant vocalism.
Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez sang with authority as the overbearing Harriet, and tenor Kirk Dougherty was a sympathetic Philip. Matthew Hanscom was an expansive Gino, and Isabella Ivy made the most of her brief scenes as Lilia.
Buffy Baggott’s opulent mezzo yielded an assured Perfetta and Chloe Smart was smartly comic Padrona. Jennie Litster, Silas Elash, Brian James Myer, Christopher Filipowicz and Michael Boley made fine contributions in supporting roles, and Frances – the only canine member of the cast – took a show-stopping turn in the big Act 1 ensemble.
Where Angels Fear to Tread
Presented by San Jose Opera
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 12 and Feb. 20, 3 p.m. Feb. 14 and Feb. 22
Tickets: $51 to $111 ($11 for students)
Contact: (408) 437-4450, www.operasj.org