the little match girl passion

Anastazia Louise as the little match girl

After a three year hiatus, San Francisco Lyric Opera made a triumphant return to the City this Friday night with a sold-out performance of David Lang's the little match girl passion. The contemporary, Pulitzer-winning piece was a bold choice for the company's re-entry in the local opera scene and it paid off well. In the past three years the two driving creative forces for the company, Chip Grant and Barnaby Palmer, have been keeping busy with other projects- Grant launched Urban Opera and has been involved with numerous vocal groups while Palmer been conducting pieces around the world, from Budapest Festival Opera and Bohemian Opera to The Crucible in Oakland. Now back together with SFLO, which started off in the 1990s presenting scaled down productions of standard rep, the company has a new mission to "produce fresh, inventive opera in intimate settings" and to "cultivate and nurture the future of the art form by providing a forum to champion innovative chamber opera." Hence the choice of Lang's work, one which owes almost as much to the oratorio tradition as the operatic.

Perfectly scaled for the ODC Theater, which is designed for dance performances and thus affords the audience a perfect view of the entire stage from any seat, the little match girl passion features bass/baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, tenor Eric Maggay Tuan, alto Celeste Winant, soprano Ann Moss and performance artist Anastazia Louise in the most pivotal role as the title character.

The instrumentation is sparse, with most of the piece performed a capella, at times accompanied by glockenspiel and bass drum, with the occasional appearance of assorted bells, a brake drum (yes, that's right- as in from a car), and other percussion instruments. Brancoveanu, the award-winning former Adler Fellow and Merola alum provided an excellent foundation from which the other singers took off. Tuan's singing was fascinating- his voice has a range that's almost hard to comprehend. He crossed lower than Brancoveanu at one point and at others came off effortlessly like a countertenor. Winant has some of the most challenging parts, repeating phrases within the whole at the top of her range, and handled them well. Moss's voice is one of sheer beauty- I would listen to her all day, given the chance.

All four were in sartorial splendor- with the women looking especially elegant, creating a stark contrast to Louise, whose self-designed costume was created from the tablecloths of her grandmother and other women close to her, creating a real-life link in her portrayal of the match girl. Louise's performance is so integral to the production its almost impossible to see how it would work  without her- or at how the company could have created something that wouldn't have felt completely different and still have the strong emotional pull evident from the beginning which didn't let go until the end.

The production's design features lighting and projected effects which alternate between cold, antiquarian urban photographs superimposed with slowly drifting snow during the match girl's narrative, and lightly-hued solid backgrounds during the choral sections- a contrast between the girl's inner story and how she's seen (or ignored, or judged) by those passing her by on the street- the witnesses, both blind and seeing, creating a visual equilibrium to match the score's own balancing act between hope and despair, alienation and acceptance.

It works extremely well. This is a smart, moving production and the dedication to it is felt from all the participants. There are two more performances this weekend.

The company returns again in the fall with Benjamin Britten's rarely performed Owen Wingrave, a two-act opera based on the story by Henry James. Anastazia Louise's company, Bad Unkl Sista will be premiering its new work First Breath-Last Breath at Z-Space on April 27-28.