OPERA REVIEW : West Coast Lyric Company Could Fill S.D. Vacuum

Opera is more than an acquired taste. It’s a habit, and those who are in its thrall need regular doses of this peculiar musical high.

Because the San Diego Opera offers but four productions each year, local opera buffs are constantly in search of more vocal stimulation, although the affluent may fly to San Francisco or New York for a week of opera immersion.

Now, however, the local options besides the San Diego Opera are few and far between. In the past, they usually included at least one semi-professional company, regular productions by the San Diego State University opera workshop and the nightly offerings at restaurants that featured operatic arias and ensembles as dining accompaniment.

Earlier this year, Pacific Chamber Opera went under in a sea of red ink--some say deservedly. The SDSU opera workshop may be mounting full productions again by the fall of 1989, but in recent years it has presented little more than a grab bag of scenes and short chamber operas. And the pasta-with-Puccini emporiums are long gone from the restaurant listings.


Enter West Coast Lyric Opera. Sunday night at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre, this newly formed shoestring company presented its first offering, a program of highlights in concert setting from two Donizetti operas, “Don Pasquale” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.” For the company, the program was a less than auspicious beginning, although it managed to showcase some fine young voices.

West Coast Lyric Opera artistic director Anne Young clearly has an ear for vocal potential. Coloratura soprano Debra Pearson and tenor Jose Medina, who sang the lead roles in the “Lucia” highlights, demonstrated strong, well-trained voices and no lack of interpretive insight. Pearson’s account of the famous mad scene aria provided an exciting display of her instrument, which complemented coloratura agility with a flinty dramatic edge. Medina’s rich, Italianate timbre could be his ticket to a fine career, although in a room as small as the Hahn Theatre, it was hard to tell how strong his voice really is.

Other singers who acquitted themselves honorably included baritone William Nolan, Pacific Chamber Opera’s sole bright light, tenor Glenn Fernandez D’Abreo and mezzo Martha Jane Weaver.

A disconcerting aspect of the production was that some singers used a score, while the majority had their roles memorized and engaged in some simple stage action, presumably devised by artistic director Will Roberson. This made the program slip between the crack of a strict concert presentation, in which scores would be acceptable, and a semi-staged production.

The nine-piece chamber ensemble, seated on stage, provided the major distraction, both visual and musical. Although Donizetti may not have possessed the orchestral genius of a Richard Strauss, these instrumentalists, drawn mainly from a local university orchestra, were not up to the composer’s modest demands. As conductors, neither Young nor Sandro Zaninovich had the technical finesse to pull the wayward group together. For the record, however, pianist Chris Allen did his best to compensate for the imprecision of the other players. It would have been better to have dismissed this feeble ensemble and to have used Allen as the sole accompanist.