The San Francisco Opera's "Betrothal in a Monastery" of Sergei Prokofiev is a production from the Kirov Opera designed by Alla Kozhenkova and produced by Vladislav Pazi. It is a whimsical comedy based on Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Double Elopement." This is a visual spectacle with elaborate sets and lavish costumes that range from the elegant gold and white of Louisa and her brother Ferdinand and the silver and white of their respective lovers Antonio and Clara, to the gaudy colored frills of Mendoza and Don Jerome. Throw in the commedia dell'arte types who cavort between scene changes in costumes that range from clownlike almost to sports mascots and it's practically blinding.
We open with frilly lanterns and Russian ornaments hanging from the ceiling, and a big leaded glass shaped fan at the back. That is lowered to form a sloping floor and raised as a backdrop for various scenes in the opera. There is a very well choreographed ballet to start. This production has outstanding dance with members of The Kirov Ballet and San Francisco's "Lines" Dance Company. Nora Heiber and Brian Chung are scintillating as the Oriental Pas de Deux. Both statuesque and strong in harem costumes, they were remarkably fluid.
This is a story of Louisa, who is being given in marriage by her father Don Jerome, to Medoza, a wealthy fish merchant, to close a business deal and to get her out of his hair. Jerome tells us "a teenage daughter is for worse than any disaster," as he's teased by dancing tormentors. Louisa is in love with Antonio, though, and her nanny loves Mendoza for his money. The nanny devises an elaborate plan so that she can get Mendoza, and Louisa gets Antonio. We have a beautiful Act 2 duet as Louisa borrows Clara's identity, and Clara goes to a convent. Mendoza has never seen Louisa, and she, as Clara, enlists him to get Antonio for her. Gennady Bezubenkov's Mendoza is like a lecherous toad as he peeks through the keyhole at the lovers and reports to the pompous Don Carlos. When he finally meets Jerome's "daughter," who is, in reality, the Nanny, he's quite shocked to say the least. She leers suggestively, and it's like a waltz of the hippopotami as she courts him. After concluding that she's "maybe not ugly, but not beautiful," he's incredulous as she completely enslaves him.
Part 3 is Don Jerome's beautiful garden. We have a ridiculous trio for trumpet, bass drum, and clarinet. Thinking Louisa has eloped with Mendoza, he doesn't bother to read her letter and simply gives his permission for her to marry. We move to a forest glade with two marble arches at the front. Clara sings a passionate aria for Ferdinand, who appears in the convent garden. He doesn't know how to address a nun, and after blurting several awkward salutations, such as "your martyrdom," runs out in a fit of jealousy, as he things Antonio has run off with Clara. At the monastery we have a positively sacrilegious scene, as the monks, dead drunk, spin and reel, and sing an outrageous drinking song. They drink to the blue or brown eyed nun from whatever convent, "...but we drank to her twice already." When Mendoza and Antonio arrive with the girls, to be married, Father Augustine tells them, "we are holy and not of this world." While some nod off and others declare that the fifty ducats will buy 100 more bottles! We return to Don Jerome's for the grand finale. The Don plays a fascinating solo on a set of "musical glasses," which are turned metal vessels that look like drinking goblets. This is a big cast, and is very tightly choreographed, not only the dance numbers, but the whole opera. The couples, on either side of Jerome, drop to a knee as confetti rains from the ceiling on the entire celebration.
"Betrothal in a Monastery" is almost Pucciniesque in it's musical lyricism. Valery Gergiev gets every bit of tender beauty from Anna Netrebko's Louisa, and passion from the Antonio of Evgeny Akimov, and Mel Ulrich's Ferdinand. We have a beautiful quartet with Mendoza, Antonio, Louisa, and Don Carlos in Part 2. Tatiyana Pavlovskaya's Clara is passionately indignant as she thinks she's been wronged by Ferdinand. In the convent she loves him, but won't let herself forgive him until she sees his jealousy. Nicolai Gassiev and Gennady Bezubenkov are almost like caricatures as Don Jerome and Mendoza. They're both pompous and smug with the assurance that everybody will obey them, when in reality, nobody pays any attention to them at all, other than manipulating them into accepting the others' schemes and plots. There's none better at this than the Duenna, or Nanny. Larissa Diadkova is simply outrageous as she plots to get Mendoza for herself, and Antonio for Clara. There's nothing as grand as Russian Grand Opera, and Prokofiev's "Betrothal in a Monastery" is as grand and as funny as it gets. The San Francisco Opera's premiere engagement continues Thursday evenings December 3rd and 10th with a Sunday matinee Dec. 6 at the War Memorial Opera House.