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OPERA REVIEW
Tiburon Music Festival / Saturday, June 21, 2008
Two from Tiburon

Linda Noble Brown

OPERA DOUBLE BILL IN TIBURON

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Launching a fledgling music festival with two contemporary chamber operas is a little unusual, but the opening Tiburon Music Festival concert June 21 was a successful if not quite memorable event. Before 100 people in Tiburon's classy St. Hilary Church's Parish Hall, operas by Marin-based composers Ron McFarland and Vincent Stadlin were given, the latter a world premiere, with a repeat performance June 27 at 7:30 p.m. The Festival, directed by College of Marin faculty member Paul Smith, will feature five additional events, all at St. Hilary, and ending June 28.

Though written in 1968, Mr. Stadlin's opera Erik, never been mounted prior to the Festival, is a tight 35-minute exploration of the relationship of a wealthy and emotionally-constrained mother (Marin soprano Linda Noble Brown) with her son, soon to be sent to Vietnam. Singing the role of Erik was Stefan Schermerhorn, with Michael Crozier the long-abandoned, or abandoning, husband. The opera works well on a dramatic scale, though placing much of Ms. Brown's vocal line in an uncomfortable high tessitura, and frequently covered by Mr. Smith's energetic piano part. There is conflict at every turn in both acts, underscoring the mostly tonal harmonic language. Ms. Brown's voice was most comfortable in the lower registers where her fetching pianissimo and adroit phrasing carried well. The duet ending Act 1, where mother and son finally find common ground, was telling. As an orchestra of one, Mr. Smith at the piano impressively delivered the score in near darkness, indeed a feat of sight reading.

The composer, currently Music Director at St. Hilary, clearly has a strong command of theater, and one looks to future presentations of his more recent work. He was greeted with loud applause at the conclusion, with Ms. Brown receiving a diva's accolade.

Arguably Marin's best-known active composer, Ron McFarland's Tamson Donner is a reduced version of his full-length opera The Donner Party, and as in Erik, just a few vocal parts have prominence. Here, with stage orchestra of two violins, flute, clarinet and Mr. Smith's commanding piano and conducting, the dramatic range is limited but persuasive. A ten-person chorus is mute much of the time, standing silently as 'trees' in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada, where the Donner expedition is marooned and where some will perish. The role of Tamson Donner was well sung by soprano Carole Klein, tending to her exhausted husband (Boyd Jarrell) and her daughters, the latter departing for safety before the violence of the storm wrecks death and cannibalism. Thematic interplay and dissonant harmonies were contrasted with the principal's lushly romantic duet with about family, and an equally-assured threnody delicately sung by Ms. Klein, over arpeggios in the piano part, as her spouse succumbs to the cold. The composer has packed a lot into just 40 minutes, and the balance between the orchestra and singing was artful. Entrances for the orchestra were frequently ragged, understandable given the difficult sightlines to Mr. Smiths conducting from the piano at stage right. Wendy Hindley's flute solos were captivating.

Recently Mr. McFarland's music was on display at a San Francisco gala, highlighting his chamber music, songs and piano preludes, and thus it was fitting in his hometown area for this 'pocket' opera to have exposure. He is a Marin treasure, a worthy colleague to Bay area composers Wayne Peterson and Roger Nixon, all enriching our musical experience.

Both operas were the product of Contemporary Opera Marin, associated with College of Marin, with a history of producing more than 50 operas and 30 premieres. Additional information regarding the Festival is at www.tiburonmusicfestival.org and (415) 457-5226. Mention must be made of the excellent acoustics of the hall and the gratis hors d'ouvres, combining with the music to fashion a beguiling place for intimate opera. This is a Festival which should become an annual Marin event.