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OPERA REVIEW : ‘Giustino’ Showcases Young Pros

Under the innocuous rubric “Showcase ’89,” members of the San Francisco Opera Center, the parent company’s finishing school for young professionals, applied themselves to a rare Handel opera, “Giustino,” on Tuesday in the Herbst Theatre.

What emerged was not only another obscure Handel work filled with musical marvels, but a heartening exhibition of what a generation ago would have been a dead-end experience for talents on the rise. The most one could expect from a study of Handel opera then was the acquisition of some recital warm-up pieces. Remember “arie antiche”?

The Opera Center singers were given every opportunity to shine by the seasoned hands to whom the production was entrusted. Director Albert Takazauckas, from the American Conservatory Theatre, accepted the librettists’ hokum gracefully, without gratuitous updating, resulting in a production much like one the audience in London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, may have witnessed in 1737.

And no shying away from the preposterous, e.g., a battle with a raging bear or pursuit by a sea monster, both handled as lovable velveteen plug-uglies from Sesame Street, eliciting the same squeals of delight from the Herbst Theatre audience as Handel expected from his 18th-Century viewers. Set against the cleverly stylized scenic design of Barbara Mesney, the opera’s fantastic elements seemed pertinent--not to dramatic truth or any such high-flown concept, but to an evening’s entertainment.

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For Handel, believable human emotion was encapsulated in the arias and recitatives rather than in plot, and “Giustino” abounds in self-revelation clothed in music of often sublime loveliness.

While one admired the stylish aplomb with which the entire cast negotiated the Handelian fioritura, the evening was dominated by Janet Williams’ exquisite Arianna, empress of this Classical never-never land. Her every pose elicited sympathy; every note was finely tuned, with a sensitivity to dynamics that might serve as a model for singers far more experienced, and with, alone among the cast, a serviceable trill. All these qualities came together in her heart-stopping Act II aria, “Quel torrente.”

In the title role of the plowboy who sorts out the various plot complexities, Patricia Spence exhibited a smoothly produced mezzo, clumsy stage presence and a need to bite into the text with more urgency. As Williams’ emperor, mezzo Patricia Racette cut a believable figure and in the glorious third-act duet with Arianna achieved the lofty expressive level of her partner.

Tenor Craig Estep, as the resident villain, substituted teeth-clenching and eye-popping for mustache-twirling, but for the most part handled his music skillfully. In lesser assignments, Ann Panagulias and LeRoy Villanueva offered potent characterizations.

Much of the musical strength of the production stemmed from the accomplished efforts (patches of sour oboe playing notwithstanding) of the period-instrument Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of Nicholas McGegan who, abjuring his often jumpy, full-speed-ahead approach, provided the young singers with a firm yet flexible rhythmic underpinning.


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