Beverly Hills sees a little night magic: Pauline Garcia Viardot’s The Last Sorcerer

United StatesUnited States Pauline Viardot, The Last Sorcerer (Le Dernier Sorcier): Soloists, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus’ Chamber Singers (Artistic Director: Fernando Malvar-Ruiz), Lucy Tucker Yates (piano), Sing for Hope Production. Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, 3.3.2023. (JRo)

Camille Zamora and Monica Yunus

Narration text – Camille Zamora, based on the libretto by Ivan Turgenev
Musical direction – Lucy Tucker Yates
Stage direction – Sharyn Pirtle and Camille Zamora
Production artwork and design – K-12 students from across the Greater Los Angeles Area

Krakamiche – Babatunde Akinboboye
Stella – Monica Yunus
Reine – Camille Zamora
Prince Lelio – Julia Johnson
Perlimpinpin – Karim Sulayman
Verveine – Anastasia Malliaras
Fairies – Los Angeles Children’s Chorus’ Chamber Singers
Narrator – Monique Coleman

Born in France in 1821, Pauline Garcia Viardot had a life that reads like a romantic novel of the period. The daughter of an illustrious family of Spanish musicians, she was a child prodigy who studied piano with Franz Liszt and a renowned opera singer who debuted at age 17. Her musical talents were prized by the best composers of the day, among them Berlioz, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Chopin, Brahms and Wagner, and she wrote more than 250 pieces, including German songs and ballads, Russian romances and French chansons. She was a confidant of George Sand, a friend of Charles Dickens and Henry James and Turgenev’s lover. And if that’s not enough, she was the mother of three and an exiled revolutionary who deplored the French Second Empire and Napoleon III.

Also famed as a voice teacher, she created The Last Sorcerer (Le Dernier Sorcier) in 1867 as a vehicle for her children and students. It was originally scored for piano accompaniment, and she later arranged the piece for chamber orchestra. Performances of both versions were mainly private, but there was a public engagement in 1869 performed with a chamber orchestra at the Court Theatre in Weimar.

Soprano Camille Zamora discovered the original manuscript of Viardot’s opera, with its French libretto by Turgenev, at Harvard’s library. Zamora wrote an English narration for the piece and maintained the arias in the original French.

Co-founders of the arts organization Sing for Hope, Zamora and her colleague, Monica Yunus, produced the opera, partnered with the Wallis. Sing for Hope’s most visible undertaking was to put pianos in public spaces for anyone to play (they were later distributed to schools, hospitals, refugee camps, etc.), which served their mission of using the arts to unite, inspire and heal communities.

Viardot and Turgenev’s creation has echoes of Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute, with forest creatures, parents guiding or thwarting their progeny and romantic love that endures despite obstacles. Set in an enchanted wood populated by fairies and elves, The Last Sorcerer centers around the magician, Krakamiche, whose powers are waning. Reduced to living in a poor hut with only the inept Perlimpinpin to serve him, the sorcerer is taunted and tormented by the fairies. The Queen of the Fairies has taken a shine to Stella, Krakamiche’s gentle daughter, and wishes her to marry Lelio, a prince from a neighboring kingdom. While Krakamiche tries to restore his former glory with chants and incantations from Merlin’s book of spells, Stella and Lelio meet in secret and fall in love. Though Krakamiche rejects Lelio, all comes right in the end: the lovers are united, and Krakamiche agrees to live out his days in Lelio’s palace and give up magic.

It is a charming story with the feel of a Carlo Gozzi commedia dell’arte play, and hints of Turgenev’s Russian roots in the forest fairy tales that feature Prince Ivan, Father Frost or the deliciously wicked Baba Yaga.

As for the music, I was reminded, first and foremost, of Jacques Offenbach. His most famous opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, wasn’t performed until after his death in 1881, but Viardot would have been more than familiar with his earlier operas. Her adeptness at the French art song was evident in the score and heightened by the solo piano accompaniment, winningly played by Lucy Tucker Yates. Though at times the overture felt more like overwrought, silent-film piano accompaniment (ahead of its time, of course), that soon eased into more sprightly rhythms.

Viardot’s mastery of the French art song was especially apparent in the Queen’s aria, ‘Ramasse cette rose’, sung with stately beauty by Zamora, and in Stella’s shimmering song, ‘Coulez, coulez gouttes fines,’ delivered to perfection by Yunus.

A cast of capable singers rounded out the production. With little rehearsal time – or none, as in the case of soprano Julia Johnson who substituted for an ailing Adriana Zabala – the cast prevailed, supported by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus’ Chamber Singers conducted by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz.

Baritone Babatunde Akinboboye was a languishing Krakamiche, Karim Sulayman displayed comedic chops as the dim-witted Perlimpinpin, Anastasia Malliaras was winning as Verveine the elf and Johnson brought innocent ardor to the role of Lelio.

Operating on a shoestring budget, the production was more like a beefed-up concert version. Fortunately, the stage in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center wasn’t too large or cavernous for the players. It would be delightful to see this little gem in a full production, minus the English narration (which was ably read by Monique Coleman) and with full dialogue inserted between arias. As it is a small-scale salon opera, it would certainly benefit from a storybook setting in an intimate venue – or perhaps a film in the manner of Ingmar Bergman’s treatment of The Magic Flute.

One sweet outcome of this bare bones production was the pairing of artwork by local area students, projected on a large screen behind the chorus. The students rendered forest glades, palaces, fairies, monsters and moonlit skies, and it seemed appropriate that an opera originally written for students should be interpreted by their counterparts, 156 years later.

Jane Rosenberg

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